By Ernie McCray
There was a moment the other day when my eyes were so flooded with tears I could barely see. Sadness filled every inch of me.
The birth of this sadness came from a work of art I was experiencing with a bunch of 4th grade friends of mine at Kimbrough Elementary, out Logan Heights way in San Diego. We get together every Thursday to explore things, to do “drama” kinds of things, to give our hearts free reign to sing about a little of everything. On this particular day I was telling them about a meeting I had attended about ending violence in the community, and that evolved into a rap session about gangs, which segued into a brainstorming of ideas for staging scenes based on our conversation.
Oh, children do this so well.
And since so many of the children have been asked to join a gang I told them how I, too, at a tender age, had to “Just say No” to a gang , an emphatic “No!” because to join I would have had to fight “Ringer,” the leader of the “Angels” - and most people came out of that initiation with less teeth than what they owned when they began the day. And, out of respect for the young people sitting on the rug before me, I acknowledged that the “gang” concept has changed drastically since my day. But although I’m aware of how big a problem gang-banging is today I just wasn’t emotionally prepared for what evolved as we improvised scenes about resisting the lures of gangs.
Right in the midst of a story that was coming along nicely, gaining creative steam, a girl, playing the main character, suddenly froze. I couldn’t know in that moment that she had gone to a very painful place inside her young soul. She slowly walked away from the stage area and quietly cried. I really did not know what to think.Then she composed herself with an innocent kind of dignity and resolve and returned with a story about her encounter with gangbangers who wanted her in the fold. “What do I have to do?” she asked them. “You have to fight 14 girls.” Those words very briefly made me chuckle inside as mental pictures of “Ringer” and a bunch of snaggle tooth “Angels” recruits surfaced in my mind. But, in the very next moment, these words came from the 4th grader’s mouth as she continued her story: “And you have to kill somebody.” I wasn’t ready for that. I wanted to continue playing with the “Ringer” jokes that were suddenly flushed from my thinking as “And you have to kill somebody” rang throughout my mind. My, goodness alive. No wonder that girl walked away and cried. What a horrible mixture of words for a child to hear and ponder. Whoa, where’s “Barbie” when you need her?
Oh, what a world we grownups have created for our children. I could barely get out of the room before I broke down and cried, not the sobbing kind, just that cry where tears flow like a broken dam and you can’t see. It was like I was walking in thick wet fog at midnight. It took me a minute to find my van.
But I still cling to the promise of a better day if for no other reason than the fact that this courageous little girl and her classmates exist. And the same goes for the other two classrooms of 4th graders who make my Thursdays. They are some of the brightest most creative and beautiful people I know.
We’ve written songs and poems about our names. We’ve molded our concerns about the homeless and helpless animals and littering into performance pieces.
We’ve contemplated questions for the president and ideas on how money for tsunami victims should be spent. “Gangs” are now in our repertoire. We’ve let very little of the world pass our eyes. These young people have shown me over and over in their artistry, in their intellect, in their street smarts, that they want to learn and understand their world and, better than that, they want to change it for the better.
These children, as do all children, in a disturbed world, keep hope alive.This too brings tears to my eyes. Tears of joy. But, hey, they could use a lot of help, world.
Ernie McCray is a retired San Diego Unified school principal.