The plight of many children: Hanging by a thread

A study released in March by America’s Promise Alliance, the nation’s largest multi-sector collaborative dedicated to the well-being of children and youth, found “17 of the nation’s 50 largest cities had high school graduation rates lower than 50 percent.”

Every day, young people are lost. They are the missing in action, no longer counted, overlooked.

Having no fixed address, they are stricken from school records. They become our secret shame, the hidden statistics. Many of them learned behavior unacceptable outside of the narrow confines of their sequestered neighborhoods and not the academic skills necessary to survive in today’s world.

With little or no guidance from adults, television and the Internet become their source of information; their school. They learn about life on the fast track — get it while you can and how you can.

A typical day for these “video-schooled” kids might be a 1 p.m. wake-up, followed by an afternoon in front of the big screen. Films are seen over and over again, dialogue learned by heart and the most graphically violent scenes committed to memory.

Over a decade ago, I interviewed one of those “statistics,” a young man whose life story captured a grim reality. Since the time of the interview, few things have changed, and some have even gotten worse with the passage of time.

The young man I spoke to and whom I shall refer to as T is in his late 20s by now; a milestone he is unlikely to have reached.

My first impression of T was of someone fierce looking, aloof and mean. Yet, when he started to speak, I realized his hard exterior was a cover-up. Under the bravado was a very mixed-up 17-year-old, a prisoner of his own image and locked into the stereotype he had taken for reality.

I learned T was born addicted and spent the first months of his life in a hospital with tumors all over his body. It was thought he would never survive. His mother had gone missing; his father was unavailable and already busy with 13 other children. This left T’s guardianship to grandparents who stepped in when T was released from the hospital.

The early years were happy enough, and T formed a deep bond with his grandfather, whom he called “Pop Pop.” They would go hunting, fishing and travel to the South together. Pop Pop died in his sleep when T was in the sixth grade, leaving him depressed and angry. School no longer interested him. Fortunately, he finished the sixth grade. But then summer came. He began to “hang out” and not go home. With a group of boys, he would walk to the next town and steal bicycles. They would take the bikes back to their neighborhood, strip them and sell parts. It was easy. No one was caught.

T unofficially stopped going to school when he was 12 years old. He would sign in, then leave. Outside on the streets, he began to notice people driving around in stolen cars. He wanted to know how they did it and thought if they did it, he could, too. And he did. He stole many, many cars.

For a long time, he never got caught, but when he was, he was locked up. When the police took his prints, they found them on lots of other cars. So he was sent to a youth detention center. At the age of 12, his record as a juvenile defender was launched. For the first two months in the youth house, he didn’t say anything. He just “chilled.”

However, the problems and rivalry of the streets did not escape the detention center. Boys whom he knew from the streets tried to jump him. T retaliated by throwing chairs at them. Then he and the others took on seven guys with barbells from the gym. The guards came and tried to stop it, but the fighting continued until a team of about a dozen sheriffs put it to an end. They stripped and handcuffed T and his friends to their beds until they calmed down.

The time T spent in the detention center did nothing to rehabilitate him. After nine months he came before a judge, who gave him a choice: three years in a youth prison or six months in a strict halfway house. He jumped at the change of going to the halfway house: anything to avoid prison. It turned out to be a positive experience for him.

The halfway house had a strong psychological orientation and provided the residents with many hours of group therapy. During these sessions, T learned about himself and gained in self-confidence. He came to believe he had leadership potential and others would listen to what he had to say. He was determined to change the direction of his life.

Unfortunately, this proved to extremely difficult as the halfway house operated only five days a week, and the boys all went home for the weekends. Every time T was given an extended pass, some type of violent incident took place either he or another youth initiated. T grew to enjoy having a tough-guy image and sought out younger boys who looked up to him.

One particularly gruesome incident took place during a neighborhood brawl between rival gangs. The fight started when someone got caught walking through another group’s territory. The boy was jumped. He later gathered his posse to wreak revenge. More than 50 boys were involved. T was right in the middle of the fight. He turned, and someone hit him with a baseball bat. His teeth were knocked in, and the raw nerve exposed. He ended up in the hospital with wiring in his jaw, bruised ribs and other injuries. A deep scar, one of the many acquired as he became increasingly mired in neighborhood turf wars, forever frames his upper lip. A local drug addict, who was trying to get the sister of one of his friends to do drugs, stabbed T on the hand and fingers. Another bystander began to beat up on the drug addict. T laughed, and the addict came rushing up to him with a broken bottle. The man aimed for his heart. T put up his hand, saving his life.

After the incident, he thought of nothing but revenge. That was when he got some guns, which were easy to purchase. Late one night he gathered up his posse. They announced their arrival by throwing a stick through the window, then kicked in the door. Going from room to room they pointed the guns at everyone and only backed down seeing children were in the house. Back outside, they totaled the drug addict’s car with bats. T was now almost 18 years old. The kids who followed after him were getting younger and younger. His little street posse was made up of 12- and 13-year-olds.

My interviews with T took place more than 10 years ago, and the situation for many inner-city children has only worsened since then. It sometimes seems as if a wall has been put up with a big “Keep Out” sign around many of our inner cities that desperately need help.

That 50 percent of the students in many inner-city schools do not graduate from high school is our national shame. The cards T was dealt at birth are all too common, and the loss of lives all too prevalent.

Education should be a priority, and, sadly, that day seems as far off as ever.