Reasons to LOL
Inside the center, I sit and listen as five teenagers, seated at a conference table, hoot and holler while swapping tales about growing up in Baltimore. "It's always a good day [at school] when you don't get stabbed," says Future, a 16-year-old who, like the rest of the group, supplies a nickname to avoid retaliation for "just telling what's real--what's true."
What Future, Jimmy, Jay, Shanie, and Woo, ages 13 to 16, all say is that at some city schools (Lake Clifton-Eastern High School is mentioned as one) the worst of what we outsiders hear is true: Fights are as routine as study hall, and knives are commonplace. "I've seen it happen where [security guards] have found somebody with a knife and just gave it back to 'em," says Jay, whose peers offer affirming nods. "It's like they don't care."
Then again, the crew claims firsthand knowledge of safety measures school administrators have put in place to combat things like violence, illegal weapons, and drugs--undercover police officers, called "knockers." "You can always pick them out," says Future, noting telltale signs like bald heads and jeans that lack the right baggy fit. To roughhousers (i.e., knife-wielding youth and other troublemakers at school), undercover agents are considered inconsequential and, well, funny.
Twenty minutes into the conversation, I ask how the youngsters can laugh at what sounds like very real dangers they face daily. "Laughing just cushions the whole point of view," Future says. "Yeah, you gotta laugh--what else you gonna do?" Jimmy retorts. Sometimes you join the madness, Shanie says, recalling a day when she and some friends were "chased by police cars" for throwing rocks at cars outside school--an antic for which she gets chided by other members of this crew.
Still, these young folk say, such potentially harmful fun and games is all a part of growing up in a city that, through no fault of their own, exposes them to certain things they could do without. Woo, for instance, talks about having recurring dreams of a man's head being blown off by a gun--an image that could dismissively be chalked up to overdone violence in movies or on television. But when Woo, 14, recently told her father about the dream, she learned that the horrific scene came from "an incident that really happened," she says in a soft monotone. "When I was about 4, a man was shot down on the street right in front of me."
Laughter, I learn from these youngsters, not only replaces a therapist's couch; it offers an immunity, or a distance, from stressful shake-ups that happen right in the comfort of home in high-crime neighborhoods. "I remember hearing this BOOM!" Jay says, recalling an incident last year during the wee hours of the night when he awoke to the sound of police officers trying to get inside his house. Running downstairs, Jay claims he swung open a partially battered door and wound up nose-first to the barrel of a gun. In search of a drug dealer who'd been (he says wrongly) reported as visiting his house, Jay says his home was "all torn up" by the cops, who showed no warrant.
"You get used to [such incidents], but it stays in your head, and it's like you say to yourself: 'I won't be like this when I get older,' " says Future, meaning that young people like these are determined not to get caught up in the drug life or a lifetime spent in neighborhoods overrun with poverty and crime. "You want to know how it goes around here?" asks Future. "Lemme run it down.
"Somebody starts selling drugs. They make lots of money. They start using. They go to church or recovery to get off drugs, and it don't work. They wind up being a junkie. They die. Game over."
As that world turns, these young people join others in neighborhoods across the city who congregate in safe places after school, trying "not to feed into the negativity," Jay says. Sometimes that means doing things like participating in neighborhood clean-up efforts--despite knowing that, as Jimmy points out, "as soon as you finish, the next day it's back to the way it was." Other times it means mentally making plans to get out of the city if an opportunity presents itself.
"I'm going to the University of Miami," declares Jay, whose buddy Future agrees that the Sunshine State--with trillions of beauties in bikinis--sounds like a fine destination. "It's not that you feel like you have to leave, but you don't like thinking it's going to be this way forever," Jay says.
And if that's the case, Jimmy pipes in, a body might as well try his or her luck someplace exotic--"like Afghanistan," he says, prompting another long outburst of laughter.
Here's Looking at You (5/19/2004)
...I've gradually discovered that my heart's got issues when it comes to whatever place I call home.
Sappy Anniversary (5/12/2004)
Suburban flight isn't the only reason many schools have resegregated almost organically, especially in cities, like Baltimore, with vast "minority" populations.
Efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201