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An Oasis in a Sea of Violence

September 21, 2003|Mary Reese Boykin

Lured by the TV news teaser -- "Three Taft High School students shot at a bus stop" -- my 20-year-old daughter, Serena, and I tuned in to the newscast with dreaded anticipation. There were the officials -- the mayor, the police chief, the superintendent of Los Angeles schools -- all reassuring the community about school safety, vowing to find the perpetrators.

As a mother, I don't relish the news that a child of mine has so much as twisted a finger in gym class, so my heart went out to the parents who would hear how their children brushed up against violence in a setting as innocent as waiting for the bus after school.

When it was clear to us that all three Taft students would survive, our thoughts turned to the disparity in the reaction when the same types of incidents occur in other neighborhoods -- like the predominately African American one where we live.

"Mom," Serena said, her tone negative and matter-of-fact, "if it were at Dorsey High [from which she and her sister, Desiree, graduated], the lead story would have been, 'Another shooting at Dorsey today.' "

As a friend asked, "Who mourns our babies in the 'hood?"

It's both tough and delicate to create a healthy childhood for our children in urban neighborhoods. But my husband, Ruben, and I try, like so many other parents in Crenshaw. Gang violence is a constant fear, especially with sons.

Whenever my sons leave home, I make a clothes check -- no wearing all black, all red or all blue; no white T-shirts; no red or blue shoelaces. Once when my 16-year-old, Jamal, asked permission to walk to the barbershop, I told him to change his shorts.

"But, Mom," he insisted, "these are my school varsity trunks."

They were maroon, not red, and had the letter F for Fairfax clearly visible at the bottom. But I remembered that gang expert V.G. Guinses had told me about how, on the anniversary of the death of a homeboy, some gang members will ride around and shoot someone merely for wearing the opposing gang's color.

My son changed his shorts.

To me, it is arrogant to live in a neighborhood and distance oneself from it. My family feels proud of its neighborhood. At the same time, it is foolish to not take precautions to keep safe.

One day a few years ago, Jamal and my older son, Ruben Jr., left a basketball unattended for a few minutes on a playground as they joined an impromptu game of street ball. My husband and I arrived to pick them up and noticed a tough-looking guy in his 20s walk onto the playground. He played with the group for a few minutes, then picked up my sons' ball and left. Rather than tell my husband, I decided it was safer to buy a new ball than to put him or my sons in harm's way.

Recently I attended the funeral of a young man who was the second son in his family to die a violent death in a nearby neighborhood. I'm appalled by the number of families that have suffered multiple deaths of their children this way.

Ruben and I have been fortunate. Despite our fears, our neighborhood has been an oasis in this sea of violence. We have had much help from teachers, principals and other school and district personnel, coaches and parents. And central to it all has been family, close friends, our church family and neighbors.

Our neighborhood is our children's haven. Neighbors have given my children rides home, waved as they passed by, stopped to talk with them, purchased their fund-raising items, gone to their athletic events, played basketball with them in front of the house. We have made our home a place where all the local children feel welcome. It is not unusual to see 20 or more of them in the yard, having an old-fashioned childhood in this often dangerous city.

As a black mother, sometimes I need validation that my children aren't invisible to the community outside our neighborhood. When I see the attention paid to the Taft shootings and then compare it with the scant reaction to the killing of two kids the next day in South Los Angeles, I have my doubts.

Our neighborhood is my haven as well, and it would be devastating if the rest of the world ignored the problems that could destroy it.

Mary Reese Boykin teaches English at Inglewood High School.

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