kids-cityThey are shooting in the projects again! My home looks like a bullet-ridden section of Sarajevo, only here there will be no peace-keeping forces to provide us safe passage. On the first day of school we will walk or ride bikes over spent shell casings, shattered glass, bloodstains and abandoned auto parts, hoping we don’t get caught in anybody’s crossfire. Other kids with shiny faces just like mine, in nicer parts of the city, will travel safely and confidently to their education destination. There won’t be one ounce of fear swirling in the pit of their stomachs, no hyper-vigilance, no need for eyes in the back of their heads. I pretend I am a stealthy Ninja with secret powers. I breathe deep from the core of my being and try to remain calm and alert because that is how I will stay alive.

When I get to school, if I get to school, breakfast will be waiting. It will be a good breakfast which I don’t want to lose due to a nervous digestion. Last year, someone at headquarters tried sending us donuts and sugary cereal but The Moms wouldn’t have it. There were big arguments and tons of rowdy meetings which resulted in The Moms retaining control over our meal program. That means my morning menu will include some rotation of true scrambled eggs, homemade biscuits, sausage or bacon, juice, sliced fresh fruit cup, pancakes flipped on a grill, hash browns from peeled potatoes, toast out of a toaster, tacos rolled by hand, oatmeal with raisins and cocoa scented with tiny marshmallows. In other words, real food prepared from scratch by real people. Maybe this is the love + nutrition that we require in order to survive the violence outside. Lunch is much the same with salads we actually eat and an absolute minimum of processed foods. Believe me, I dream of these meals and I smell them in my sleep, when I can sleep, which is when the gunfire isn’t so loud and relentless.

Lots of schools around here won’t open this year. They have been turned into private academies, charters or sometimes even into condos. Once they were known by famous names like Harriet Tubman Elementary or Cesar Chavez Junior High or Julia Richman Senior High but that’s all gone and forgotten. Others were bulldozed to make way for apartments that no one around here will ever be able to afford, leaving us surrounded by strangers with historical and social amnesia. Last week some kids got letters saying their district was out of money and couldn’t say for sure when things would start up. Parents and teachers marched down to city hall and picketed with big signs but so far, nothing has changed. The Moms call it a standoff that we are lucky to be out of but now I worry every time the mail arrives that we may be next.

Yesterday, a shooting happened right in the middle of a basketball game at the community center. Two guys were killed so now that gym is off limits and there is yellow, crime scene tape everywhere you look. I am sick of it. I want someplace safe to play where parks aren’t gang turf, ball diamonds aren’t vandalized, and recreation workers aren’t furloughed leaving us with no bats, no balls and no umpires. Is that too much to ask? I’m trying to have a childhood here. What playground space there was at my school, got turned into a parking lot. It wasn’t much to begin with since the junkies used it at night for shooting up, leaving infected syringe litter all over the blacktop. Our adults had to sweep all that away which was yuck, to say the least. But then one morning drug guys came roaring around the corner, leaning out of car windows with sawed-off shotguns. Their fire fight got so crazy that staff cars took bullet holes the size of frisbees and that was the end of off-street parking. Now if we want “recess”, the neighborhood men escort teacher and students a block over to a green space where we run like the wind, while they watch our piled-up jackets so nobody steals them.

The grownups look proud of us when we step out into the community and they should because they have lots to be proud of. Plenty of them own their own homes and keep the front sidewalks as clean as a kitchen floor. They plant flower and vegetable gardens and run businesses like tire shops, sandwich shacks, beauty parlors, parking lots, car repair, even an old hardware. I take walkabouts, I pay attention, I listen and I ask questions. I’m curious about what they do and how they keep it going year after year. I know just where to go when a class project calls for batteries, magnets, pulleys, mirrors, scales, electrical switches, sandpaper or seed packets.

We even have a library that sits in the middle of a burned-out block. It looks more like a bombed-out block but at least it has stayed open and busy for nearly 100 years. Its name is the Frederick A. Douglass branch, with art deco designs on the first floor and a theater in the basement. Yes, a theater for stage plays with curtains, microphones, lights and speakers that let audiences hear what is being said. Last year a rich man came to visit us at school. He said he had grown up nearby, with a dad who was killed in an accident and a mom gone all day at a factory where she sewed clothes. He didn’t have much to do for fun so he hung out at this library. They got to know him so well that the ladies collected books about things that interested him which was mostly snakes. No matter how lonely or invisible he was feeling, he knew there would always be snake books waiting for him at the big, circulation desk. That made him feel like somebody and eventually, he grew up and became somebody. I believe his story because this library acts the same way to this very day.

The violence I encounter takes place inside my safety zone, on streets I know very well, in front of people who recognize me and look after me. I’ve memorized how to duck and cover and I have a choir of angels making sure I stay in one piece. But what about the kids who have lost all that? How many of them will get hurt before someone figures out that it is never safe to make children strangers in a strange land? Their nearby schools have been shuttered and where they now must go, they have never been before. When something jumps off, because it always does, what then? Who has their back and who protects their heart from feeling frightened, lost and alone? It is scary enough to walk past a familiar homeless center, housed in a church basement, and watch angry men with sticks and clubs push down the steps and into the shelter looking for someone they want to beat up. What if you don’t know the location, the director and the clients, like I do? It is a peaceful, positive, protecting program…most of the time. But when that’s not true, a child’s imagination takes over and nightmares begin and the journey to school turns terrifying and everything connected to learning becomes just one, long-lasting anxiety attack. And don’t get me started on the rival gangs, their colors, signs, turf and trouble. Ask around because the parents of these kids are affiliated members who don’t like each other and who kill each other regularly. That definitely will not change anytime soon.

Mary was a little lamb

Her fleece was white as snow

She got assigned to a dangerous zip code

Where grown men feared to go.

So we followed her to school one day

It was against their rule

But who would route her life this way?

Only a bureaucrat or a fool.

It made the children scream and shout

When the bullets hit the wall

We tried to cover Mary, but too late,

We watched her fall.

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