BLM, Police, and Kids These Days

When I was 14 my friend Matt and I were supposed to be sleeping over at Eric’s house, but we all snuck out the window. We didn’t have anywhere to go, or even anyone to meet, but it was summer, we were bored, and we were going to manufacture some adventure in any way we could. In my pocket I had a brick of firecrackers my dad had brought back from Wyoming where they were legal. We headed off for the gully where it was rumored devil worshipers held strange ceremonies involving kidnapped children. Where else would adventure seeking suburbanites go? When we got there we did not find the pagans, but we did find a lone cop, sitting in his squad car with the windows rolled down.usguys1

Eric told me to wait in the bushes and he would be back in a minute. I dumbly complied. About two minutes later a string of firecrackers lit up the inside of the cop car. I could hear the officer shouting in shock even louder than the pop-pop-pop of the Black Cats. Eric came hurdling over the bushes and ran down the street not waiting to see if I was following. I was.IMG_0496

That was more than 20 years ago and I have told that story a million times to thousands of people. Eric is a responsible well employed adult now- no harm no foul. Funny thing is this story gets different reactions depending on who hears it. Most of my white friends laugh in wonder at the foibles of youth. Most black people with whom I tell are at best, annoyed. Some are quite upset.1923755_1165089124994_2895697_n

You see, most of my white friends, more than you might think, counter with their own stories. Thanks to them I have quite the collection of stories about idle vandalism and general teenaged delinquency; enough to re write American Graffiti ten times over. But this would be a very white movie. None of the black people I know have the same sorts of stories. No, that isn’t quite true. They do have those stories but the endings are very different. The black stories I hear trend towards much less actual destruction and much more police involvement. It is possible that the black people I know are just lames. Maybe they were blerds. I of course have not met all black people, nor do I represent all white folks, I am just a middle aged collection of anecdotes. But with that being said, we, my black friends and I, are all Americans but we did not grow up in the same world.

This reality was made even more clear to me, and more alarming, last night.IMG_2749

I attended a local public forum on race and policing. Up on the stage were a row of chiefs. There was the local police, the county sheriff, even the school district pd. The mayor, a black woman, sat there too, joined by another row of pastors and local clergy. Out in the auditorium the public lined up behind two microphones to ask their questions, make their comments, and the chiefs gave their answers. It was a mostly cordial event. I support having more of them. Yet there was a theme coming from that stage that troubles me.

More than one officer, and a couple pastors, even one black officer from the crowd, talked about how the youth are different today. They talked about how the youth of today don’t respect the police. One officer suggested kids are responding to things they see about cops in the media and two pastors said this is all a result of the lack of Bibles in school. There was a common thread that the police wanted to understand, more so to be understood, and that they are constantly frustrated by the public’s lack of cooperation.IMG_0503

The challenge of policing in a violent racialized society is definitely complex and difficult. I get that.

But I also get that American Graffiti was released in 1973. I also know that I knew all the words to that Officer Krumpke song from West Side Story when I was ten.  That movie was released in 1961. I know that all through my youth the cops were the ones who got mad at you for throwing water balloons or eggs, chased you when you hopped the neighbor’s fence, and cops were the ones who stopped your car when they got calls of possible gun shots coming from a black Tercel. The car was blue, not black, and the sound wasn’t gun shots, it was the noise made when a bat hits a mailbox.

We were never respectful, we were too annoyed that our spirits were being oppressed.IMG_2750

But maybe I haven’t spoken to enough young black kids today. Maybe they are the ones who have changed. Maybe it is the black people of my generation who would never have dared to throw a lit firecracker into a cop car or who got arrested for being out too late. Maybe the black kids today would hit the mailbox or would throw the egg.

Does this mean things have gotten worse?meandpetedisco

Maybe bad guys and cops have both been pulling triggers for generations and the only thing different now is cameras. Maybe the black folks who never threw eggs back then are more afraid of bullets and are now willing to throw bricks. I know that plenty of the guys I grew up with, the ones who did the same things as me, have grown up to be cops. These are great guys. I love them.choirhazing2

But did we forget? Where is the empathy? Why has the phrase “kids will be kids” been replaced by the word thug? Is it because these kids today, these thugs, are worse than we were? We, the Dazed and Confused kids were just messing around but these thugs are a real danger? Really?highschoolgroup

I struggle with this. I struggle because in 9th grade I watched my classmates smoke weed and shoplift. In 10th grade I watched a bunch of kids hop out of a car at a strip mall and beat up a stranger for no reason. I saw one kid beat another with a bat behind the movie theater over a girl. Jed got stabbed at school. My good friends did meth, dropped acid, sold coke. Stole a car, drove drunk, walked away. I saw all of that. But we are all older now and we have learned our lessons. We have matured now and we teach our children better. We were kids.highschoolgroup2

Really, the biggest difference I can see between us back then and the kids today, is that for the most part, we were all white.


Roots and Reunions

I got nervous on the drive to the hotel. It was the kind of nervous you feel when a friend you’ve never heard sing is about to take the stage to belt out a ballad. You hope with all your heart they do well but more than that, you suspect they are horrible. You were excited during the planning but now that the curtain is moving, your mistake is realized too late. “Is the DJ going to play Snoop Dog or Depeche Mode?” my wife asked. “I have no idea. Actually, I have no idea if Matt even hired a DJ. Wow. What if he didn’t hire a DJ?” Imagining a large room full of people with no music, forced to make conversation with each other, suddenly terrified me. I hadn’t talked to most of these people in twenty years. Some of them I had never talked to. Imagining all the horrible possibilities made me feel sixteen all over again, which was appropriate, because I was on my way to my twenty year high school reunion.1smoothmebw

I graduated from a suburban public school outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. Going to high school in suburban Utah is just like going to school in any other suburb except that it’s maybe just a bit whiter and a lot more Mormon. There was plenty of homework, zits, football, sex, beer, bad hair, bad taste, and good times. Not all of us had all of those things, but they were all there. There were geeks and jocks, band nerds and burn outs, somebodies and nobodies. I was never quite sure which of all those I was, and I think part of my nervousness pulling into the parking lot was that I might find out. This was very much a homecoming. Not just in that I grew up in this place and been gone for most of my adult life, but because most of the people that would be there, I not only graduated with, but grew up with. I had known them since elementary school. I lived in the same house from birth through high school, and so had almost everyone else. Both that place and those people are and were my roots. We grew in the same soil at the same time and we were all going to be together again tonight. Nostalgia does not always square well with truth and some truth is hard to face. Really, the truth rarely squares with Facebook or Instagram either. This was part of why I wanted to go to the reunion in the first place. I am aware that liking posts on Facebook is not the same as friendship. Looking at online pictures of someone’s kids or latest night on the town is not the same as hanging out. I wanted to hang out. I wanted to see if we were still friends in the real world. I wanted to be real world friends with those I now chatted with online despite never speaking to in high school. I wanted them to be friends with me. I wanted to see if the folks who defriended me around election time would still shake my hand. What if they did shake my hand but still harbored hard feelings? What if it is weird? What if we all just stand around awkwardly nodding at each other? My insides began twisting into a knot but I had driven hundreds of miles back to a place I had long since abandoned and drug my wife along for the ride. I couldn’t back out. I took a deep breath, held it for just a moment, then pushed open the car door.1georgehug

I walked slowly as my wife did her one footed hop, trying to strap on heels and walk across a parking lot at the same time. As I paused to wait, a black SUV pulled to a stop in front of me. “Daaaaaaaalyn!” they yelled as the windows rolled down. We grownups rarely get such a greeting and I was happy to see that we weren’t all going to be grownups tonight. Nanners, Nat, Dixie and Gina; I hadn’t seen those four women since they were girls and we were friends. Exchanging awkward hugs through rolled down windows gave me hope that our dormant relationships still lived and that tonight’s party wouldn’t be dead. A bit surprised at how surreal it was to see those faces after all these years I told them to go park and we would meet inside. It was awkward just as I feared. Awkward, exciting, and happy.1lisahug

Trevor was in the lobby. From fifty yards away I could tell it was him and I was scared. We were real friends, the kind that hung out after the convenience of school had expired. But I had moved away chasing my own future and we hadn’t spoken since. What if this was my fault and he knew it? We shouted each other’s names and when we got close enough to hug his smile looked real. We stepped back to stare at the creases at the corners of our eyes, and realized they were in fact the same old eyes, then hugged again. I didn’t care anymore who else’s smiles might be real because now mine was. I didn’t care anymore. I had stepped onto that stage and hit the first note pitch perfect. The fear was gone. As my wife and I turned the corner we saw the crowd spilling out of the conference room doors. There was Leavitt, Tina, Dan, and wow; is that Steve? I stepped into the crowd and slipped into a sort of sensory overload. Everywhere I looked were foggy versions of my past all smushed together into right now. I didn’t know what to say or who to talk to. I just hugged everything that crossed my path and kept smiling. Smiling and smiling and smiling.1usguys

My wife was a great sport throughout this whole thing. She had originally declined my request that she come along. “Why in the world would I drive ten hours to go hang around a bunch of people I have never met in a place I don’t really want to visit?” It was a fantastic question to which I had no immediate answer. “Uhhh, cuz I wanna hang out with you?” was all I had. With our intentions firmly settled I sadly made solo plans. I thought about this as I buzzed around the room shaking hands and reading name tags. She smiled and encouraged me to pose for a picture with everyone I met. She floated over to the table of old letter sweaters and memorabilia taking photos, reading the memorials to those of our class who passed too early; she was more than a good sport. She finally agreed to come when an old friend of hers, not mine, called and begged her to come sleep in their guest room. This invitation moved her from “no way” up onto the fence. Her mother offering free babysitting for the weekend shoved her over onto my side, and once on my side she went all in. She smiled and acted excited to see people she had never met. She read name tags and laughed at everyone’s jokes including mine. She did it so well I was convinced her smile was real. She did it so well that within a few minutes she convinced herself as well. We had done our homework before the trip. I thumbed through my old yearbooks, she fell asleep half way through Can’t Buy Me Love, refused to sit through License to Drive, but together we watched every episode of Freaks and Geeks. This combination of preparation, and her natural charm, made her an instant hit, and by extension, I felt like a hit as well.1fab5

There was a DJ. I’m not sure what he played because I was too busy catching up with old friends. There were some prizes given out to the senior superlatives, including the couple voted most likely to be together forever. They were both there and they were still together. The two voted biggest class clowns were still clowns, though one of said clowns is now, strangely enough, a principal. Most likely to be president- wasn’t. Matt, the one who organized the whole thing, said some words, but not too many. It was perfect.1splitmatt

It was around this time, or perhaps a little bit earlier, that the bar on the other side of the hotel, and the 12 pack stashed under a table, started to show their influence. No one got stupid like they always do in the movies, but they got happy, slow, and shallow. People I was excited to see would hug me tightly and while staring hard at my forehead say things like, “Living the dream man. Ya know, just doing my thing. Isn’t that great?” or maybe, “You have always meant the world to me. You are the whole reason I came,” said just a little too slow and in response to the question, “Do you have any children?” Such conversations put me in a strange place. I would stand in front of a person I was profoundly happy to see, someone I had anticipated spending time with, and there they were, but only a slightly glossed façade of a person. It was still good to see such a friend, but it was much more like watching a movie than living one in that you could see them, but they were really somewhere else.1splitjake

In a way this was the most real experience of the night. Real because one night of catching up is not enough to connect with the whole of a person. We were mostly too happy, too excited, or for some- too drunk. Reality is happy and excited, but it is also sad and hard. There are affairs and divorces, lost jobs and lost children. We knew each other when we were young and full of dreams. Most dreams either evaporate or die violently. New dreams, often better ones can take their place, but staring into the liquor happy eyes of a once very close friend, I felt the loss that comes with reality. I wanted to know everything I had missed over the years. I wanted to pay a happy visit to days past. I wanted to be close again. What I got was a good strong hug, sincere exchange of smiles, and a good look into a pair of eyes that let me know we wouldn’t be going much deeper that night. It was like Facebook in real life.1onthe table

As I sat back and enjoyed watching everyone, even the empty eyed ones, enjoy themselves, I wondered if is possible to tell the type of a tree just by looking at its roots. Looking around the room I could see my roots. This place, these people, are what I grew from. Looking around I could see it, remember it, feel it-roots. But while looking and feeling I wondered what kinds of trees or plants we really were, or rather are. I can’t tell. This was a room full of people with the same roots but we were oaks and aspens, orange trees and grape vines. I am not confident I know what everyone has grown into and I’m sure most others really don’t know me. Maybe that is because in my mind I am not sure what kind of tree I am either. I’m not done growing. How high school of me.  I am unsure of what I have really grown into, some of those I grew up with drink to avoid knowing, and most of us just post pictures of our blossoms.1splitguys

But I loved it. I loved it because what I do know is that I still have roots. I have a base from which to grow no matter in what soil I am planted. Roots feel good. In that room hugging those people, smiling a very real smile, wishing we could talk deeper than we did- I was happy.

Thinking Back and Airing Dirty Laundry

JHS senior football players, '94

I was happy growing up.  We all knew each other.  It wasn’t some sleepy Mayberry, but the kids I went to kindergarten with are the same ones I graduated high school with.  They were my playmates, classmates, and teammates.  Race was definitely not an issue.

Me and Jake

Jake and I had been best friends for a few years.  I think it started as freshmen in the weight room, then weekends harassing the same girls, then pretty much living in each other’s houses.  One day, in the locker room, with all the social grace of a sledge hammer, I finally asked, “So dude, what exactly are you?”

“@!$# I don’t know,” was his reply.  “Are you like a Mexican or something?” someone else chimed in.

“@#!$ you, I’m Spanish,” Jake finished.  We never talked about it again.

In the nine years since I left, I’ve been back twice.  I still read the hometown paper, especially during football season.  Something I read recently got me thinking back; reflecting.

It isn’t my alma mater, but it’s the school right next door.  It’s the same home town.  Some kids got stupid, a kid who probably looks a lot like my kids would if I had a son, was offended, and now it’s a big deal.  I’ve read the kids blog, I’ve read the comments, and I’ve read the local coverage.

“We aren’t racist,” is the cry from kids and parents.  “He’s racist for trying to make this about race,” declare others.  Both the principal and vice principal are on leave pending an investigation.  It all got me thinking about a picture in my yearbook.

JHS Varsity basketball, '94

Of course we weren’t racist!  Bill was cool.  Kuki was one of my favorite people.  We were taught that to be racist meant hating a person because of their skin.  That wasn’t us.

My wife and I talk about our high school experiences, hers down south and mine in Utah.  We laugh and tell stories.  She talks about the lunchroom and how everyone had their own tables, black kids at one table, white kids at another.  “Was it like that for you guys too?” she once asked. 

A bunch of "us"

 “No way”, was my quick response… that would have been a very lonely table.

Part II

Five hours of sleep, 200 views, and 2 emails later and I’m writing an addendum.  I oft fall victim of my own attempts to be subtle, or get cute when writing.  Doing so on matters of race often leaves those less informed missing the point and feeling even more slighted when corrected post event.  I suppose if you attempt to be subtle in your writing and no one gets your point, your writing is really just shallow.

In retrospect we were all wrong.

Bill, I remember when your parents came to watch you play basketball.  I was confused.  I never said anything.  I hope they did.  I fear many children like you, or like mine, growing up where we did, with people like me… will grow up unprepared.

Anson, I remember back when we threw javelin together on the track team.  We had no coach and we had fun.  I had no idea “Spear Chucker” was a racial slurr but I suspect you did, and may have even been called one.  Thanks to your good personality and my ignorance I probably retold stories of us being the JHS Spear Chuckers a million times.  It makes perfect sense to me why David Chapelle walked away from his TV show.

Zac, I didn’t know till this morning that they pasted a “Fresh Mex” add to your locker back then.  I would have known it was wrong then, but I ‘m sure I never would have said anything.  That was wrong.  I did know they called you Spic ‘n Span when you got a job washing dishes.  It felt wrong but girls laughed…. so I did too.

Kuki, I wish I could ask you if it made you feel odd when we called you “chocolate chip Kuki”.  You werent the type to speak out, maybe your brother will tell me.  Your family helped us learn to appreciate cultures not my own, but in retrospect it has helped me realize how hypocritical our culture is in applauding some cultures while ignoring the very existence of others.

We were taught by good teachers and parents to be colorblind.  We thought we were looking past our differences but at some level, we did not.  When one is blind, one cannot see.  Another word for not seeing something is ignorant.

To ignore someone’s color you in a very real way have to ignore that person.  We didn’t get that and most of us still don’t.  It’s part of the reason my wife had a tough time living there.  She liked everybody, it was hard to put a finger on just one thing.

Lets just say it was a very lonely table; even more so because most of us refused to even know it was there.


Go Bulldogs!

The Marianna Bracetti Academy football team tasted victory for the first time last Saturday.  It was the school’s fourth game ever played, their first this season.  There were no cheerleaders, there was no stadium, but people cheered.   They cheered like they had just won the Superbowl.

Mariana Bracetti Academy, or MBA, has more kids below the poverty line than any other school in Philadelphia.  In a place like Philadelphia that is quite the accomplishment.  It is a charter school so it claims no geography of its own.  As the name would imply, it caters to children for whom English is their second language, most parents speak Spanish, I speak coach.

I am surprised at how placing a whistle around my neck makes my mouth magically spew nothing but cliché’ and athletic rhetoric.  I am even more surprised that the kids listen.  They eat that stuff up.

We held our first day of tryouts on the blacktop next to the school.  It’s about half the size of a football field, surrounded by barbed wire, and the elevated train (the same one featured in the original Rocky Movie) passes overhead.  We had over 100 kids show up.  We only had equipment for 30.

MBA has no locker rooms.  It has no field.  Once we started wearing pads the kids would all ride the train up to an old YMCA field that is half dirt, half rock.  That first day I asked how many kids had played football before; they all raised their hands.  I asked how many had played wearing a helmet, only four held up their arms.  If I would have asked how many of them had more than one tattoo, these sophomores and juniors would have all reached for the sky.

The school focuses on academics and has an online, real time, grade reporting system.  This means that the same day a test is given, or the same day a homework assignment is missed, the grade is adjusted.  If any player at any time has a D or lower, they cannot practice.  If your math class has only given one test and you do not do well on it; you may recover your grade, but you won’t play till that has been accomplished.

You have never seen such a group of guys as this.  Loud, flashy, full of bravado with mouths like sailors.  Every time I see them they all walk up individually and shake my hand.  When I show up at the school doors are opened for me and kids wearing the school tie ask teachers to excuse them so they can again, come shake my hand.

We started that first year with 100 kids.  We ended the year with an average practice attendance of seven.  Football requires 11 on the field from each team.  Our first obstacle was having no facility, the second was grades.  Then there was injury, and then there was our first loss.  It was only by a point.  Next came a public transit strike.  More than two thirds of the kids at school take public transit to get there.  I was proud of the seven kids that somehow still made it through those two weeks.

One week our Captain just didn’t show.  He had been staying at a relative’s home but that relative got evicted.  His pads were locked in the former apartment and he was bouncing from couch to couch.  I didn’t make him run extra laps when he reappeared.  I didn’t ask him how he got his pads back.

Another player, a sophomore with the type of body that gets free college, disappeared as well.  No one knew why so I went all Magnum P.I. after practice.  When I finally found him, the address the school had on record was wrong, I found him feeding his ten year old brother macaroni & cheese for dinner.  I asked him where his mom was and he replied they hadn’t seen her in three days.  No one knew where she was and no one acted like this was a new thing.  I would have played him when he reappeared but he hadn’t been around enough to learn the plays.

It never stops being funny when one of these kids, who is almost as big as my six year old, tells me he won’t forget me when he goes pro.  This is the same kid who asked me why I was wearing Dominican shoes when I showed up to practice in a suit.  I have no idea what he meant.

These are good kids in a bad place.

This Saturday they won by two touchdowns and I felt like king of the world.

We beat the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.  It was that school’s first ever football game.  They only had 12 players at the game.