Anyone who lives their entire life in the suburbs and then moves to the city can expect some shifts in their perspective.
My perspective shifted about a thousand times in the first three months of living in the city but never more profoundly then when I confronted the feral teens on my block.
In the suburbs, when I was a kid, I was considered the wayward teen. I was the pregnant high school dropout. I did drugs and ran with a pack that was considerably older than me but at the end of the day we were all still white kids in Montgomery County who slept in our own rooms and had pets with names like Daisy.
My “bad” was nothing compared to the bad-ass that city teens display. Those kids, whose mothers are in lock up for prostitution and whose fathers are selling drugs on the corner don’t have the training it takes to become part of a healthy community.
And if that healthy community sees them as nothing more than a problem – a mar on the pretty fabric of their own lives – then those kids are going to get ugly fast.
I had my “ah-ha” moment on the corner of Elm and Wellington. I was out walking and I was completely full of my own self-satisfaction when I saw a group of teens messing around on the corner.
One of them took a final swallow of his big gulp, hiked up his beltless pants, and tossed the plastic cup and straw into the street. I was horrified.
I went immediately into my indignant mother roll which would have been very effective with my own suburban born and raised kids.
I used sarcasm to express my offense.
“I know,” I sneered, “How about I clean up after your mess since it’s obvious that YOU don’t care about this neighborhood.”
Then I rolled my eyes and made a grand, exaggerated gesture of reaching down to pick up the cup they had tossed aside.
The kids, who had been laughing and minding their own business a minute ago, turned with an expression of shock and disbelief that some total stranger would talk to them like that. Their expressions rapidly changed to the kind of anger that turns the blood cold with fear.
They surrounded me. As I cowered there with trash being thrown at me, bouncing off of my forehead, wetting my hair- and insults being hurled with expletives – I started thinking that maybe I had taken the wrong approach.
Maybe judging and shaming these kids wasn’t the way to bring out the best in them.
I decided right then and there that, if they didn’t kill me, I would get involved in some community activity.
It’s not like I was making a promise to God…”Dear God, if you let me live I promise I will get involved…” It was more like I was making a promise to these kids.
I’m sorry you have been taught so little. I’m sorry you feel so badly about yourselves and that I just added to that feeling with my arrogance and rudeness.
They did let me live. They laughed at me and walked away. I was shaken up and raced into my house feeling violated and abused.
I suppose I was a victim but under no circumstance could I be considered innocent.
None of us are.
Gandhi said that “If you want to teach a person they are doing wrong; do right.”
I went to the Hampden Community Council and joined forces with the Clean and Green team. They are a group of folks who went (and still go) out on certain days of the week to pick up the trash in the neighborhood.
I made it a point to clean up around the house where those kids were. I was kind and friendly to them when I saw them.
I signed up to be a block captain when the bi-annual city-wide clean ups were scheduled and I made a point of inviting the families of those kids to join us. It might have been a first for those kids to see their dysfunctional and isolated families being invited into the fold.
I saw the boy who threw the big gulp that started it all when I was making my rounds. He recognized me and was confused by my friendly invitation to come enjoy some bagels even if he didn’t have time to help us clean.
It was a show of respect and it paid off.
A few months later, I passed him while he was sitting on a stoop with his friends. He had just finished tossing a wrapper on the ground but when he looked up and saw me he reached back down and picked it up again.
We both smiled.