Going to school should not be dangerous. Last week one of the young men in our mentoring program walked to the Center after school. I was surprised to see James as he does not live close to the Center and his school is nowhere near 24th and Binney Street. I asked James if he needed anything and he just responded that he was scared. James had been warned to not ride the bus home as he was going to be attacked. My immediate thoughts went to the recent after school shooting where a young man was gunned down once he got off the bus. I offered to give James a ride home. As we approached his house, he slumped in the passenger seat. He told me to look across the street where there was a group of young men with baseball bats and 2x4s. James informed me this group was probably looking for him. James was definitely flustered. Not wanting to press him on what was going on, I asked him if he would like me to take him to breakfast and school in the morning. James quickly said yes.
At breakfast the next morning at McDonald’s, I asked James specifics about the previous day’s situation, his attackers, and why were they looking for him. For being 16 years old, James was incredibly insightful and I believe honest. James talked about the gangs that live close to his house. He talked about how alliances can change quickly and most of the killings are to settle grudges that many do not when or how they started. I told James that I would never judge him but wanted to know whether he was in a gang. He was adamant he was not but a brother was involved. He speculated the group of young men the previous day were really looking for his brother. He talked about wanting to be loyal to his brother but fearing what this means for him and his dreams.
James is embarrassed to talk about the future. He wears three buttons on his shirt at breakfast. Each button is for a friend or family member that has been killed. To him, talking about what he wants to do when he is thirty years old seems like he is really just dreaming. Even so, James mentions he wants to work construction after he graduates high school and attends a trade school. James is proud (although he tries to hide it) he is on the honor roll. James has several skills he would like to learn in school so he can become marketable. He talks about never wanting to rely on anybody to pay for shelter, food, or clothing. School is important to him and he boasts that nothing will prevent him from graduating. I believe James. After all, I have just seen the dangers he confronts to attend school.