Last Thursday I left work with the company Yukon (it was donated) to pick up a 12-year-old boy so that his mom could go to the hospital. She has both sickle cell and asthma (because that's what poverty does to a body) and was having an attack. So, here I am, a white lady headed to the west side of Chicago in a giant SUV. This has trouble written all over it.
I have actually met this kid before and he's really nice. He drew me a picture of Timmy Turner once while he waited for the family that was going to take him in the last time his mom went into the hospital. Unfortunately, that family wasn't available again this time so I didn't know where he was going to go as I was driving down Homan Avenue.
As I pulled up to the building, it had a sign on the front that indicated it was some sort of private housing project. An ambulance was pulling away without lights or sirens and I wondered if that had anything to do with Jesse's mom (of course, I've changed his name). A middle-aged African-American man let me into the foyer that was well-lit, clean and institutional. His expression asked me my business and I said I was here to pick up Jesse. He confirmed that the ambulance just left without Jesse's mom and they were up on the 6th floor. I got in the elevator that took forever, feeling very conspicuous as the classic white social worker type. No one questioned my presence.
When the elevator doors opened, a woman was yelling for help from an open apartment door and yelling that she couldn't handle it any more. A man in the apartment next door had his head stuck out looking around but closed it quickly when I arrived. The woman said something about Jesse and I entered her apartment to see what was going on. It started to register from my ears that she was saying something about a knife but I saw Jesse walking toward me and all I wanted to do was hug the kid once I saw him. He was so rigid with anger and sorrow. His eyes looked up at me as if the muscles of his face were bench-pressing his eyeballs up in my direction. He was scared of himself and tears were running down his face. He jerked and twitched in order to walk but his body stayed rigid. I reached out to put my hands on his shoulders but he pulled away and only then did I realize that he was holding a knife in his hands. From my earlier scan of the apartment, I recognized it as a cheap serrated steak knife like I had seen in the dish drying rack.
His mom told me to help her and I said, "Ma'am, I can't help you." And I really couldn't. I don't know how to take down an out-of-control kid. I don't know him well enough to talk him down from his rage. And I didn't know what my legal liability was. I've been working in under-resourced communities long enough to know how limited I really was. If this had been 10 years old, I'm sure I would have been brave and stupid and tried to fix everything. Maybe I would have succeeded. Probably not. Since I am 32 and not 22, I stood there somewhat helplessly. I was pretty sure Jesse wouldn't hurt me. The knife was held rigidly pointed down at the floor, like he'd grabbed it in a fury and then didn't know what to do with it. I've felt like that before. Like my body needed to take a violent action but my brain interceded before I could do any actual damage. Still, I thought about how Jacob would feel if I took a risk based on my assessment. This is when I tried to pray.
Pray for me involves opening my inner self up to the presence of God. Like meditation, I try to let down the emotional walls I regularly put up and try to listen to God. As I tried to pray in that apartment, making myself vulnerable actually caused me to tear up a little bit and so I quickly stopped praying and tried to toughen up because I knew I had to keep it together and be strong for these people. My privileged innocence wasn't the most important thing being hurt in this moment.
Jesse pushed by me into the hall. This whole time his mom had been yelling about how awful he was but clearly in an end-of-her-rope way and not in a bad mom way. She was clearly in physical pain, which must have been why she wanted to go to the hospital and now her adolescent was freaking out. I don't think I'd have done a lot better based on my own experience of how tetchy I get when I'm in physical pain, even the minor pain of dental surgery or cramps.
At this point, the man that let me in the front door appeared out of the elevator and made a quick assessment of what was going on. I was grateful to realize that he was really big and calm. He spoke to Jesse's mom while Jesse stood with his back to us at the end of the hall. She had been spiraling into a more intense state of upset and he talked her down a little bit. I learned that the ambulance driver had insisted on taking her to the local hospital but she advocated for herself and wanted to be taken to the hospital where her doctor was, saying the local hospital treated her badly whenever she went. I offered to drop her off at her hospital, which was only a mile away and the man used this to help her calm down.
When we checked on Jesse again, he looked at us desperately and threw the knife to the ground, behind him and towards us. He was so clearly ashamed and trying to work himself out of this predicament he'd gotten himself into. The man went into the hall to talk to him and hold his shoulders and steer him back into the apartment. His mom was still upset, saying how she just couldn't handle him any more. I looked around as they put their coats on. The apartment was immaculate with pictures geometrically arranged on the wall. I thought about how hard she must be working to make a good life for the two of them and how it must feel like everything is against them. She complained that she was going to lose this apartment because of Jesse and it was the whine of someone who doesn't expect her complaint to be heard. She said that he was mad because she had asked him to go upstairs after she fought with the ambulance. I asked if Jesse had a school bag. He said he didn't want it and his mom said to leave it. I took it anyway.
We got into the car and I tried to act like I would if everything was normal. I didn't know what else to do. I made little remarks like, "It's this beast of a car over here." "Do you want to sit in the front?" Both Jesse and his mom sat in the back but Jesse had lost the rigor of rage enough to yell at her for it. "Who does she think she is, sitting next to me?" He continued to say things like that under his breath in an angry tone of voice, but when I asked for help on where the hospital was, he'd tell me in a normal voice, "Keep going straight here." "It's past the second flag like this." I was silent most of the time out of respect for them. I didn't want to be a pollyanna dork.
When Jesse's mom got out of the car at the emergency room, I asked him if he wanted to sit up front with me. He didn't and I let him sit quietly back there for awhile as I drove. I tried to pray for him again and again started to lose it so stopped praying. I asked him if had had dinner and then whether he wanted Burger King or McDonald's. He said, "I don't know. I just can't think right now. I'm kind of paralyzed by what happened."
My heart just broke for him. I was quiet most of the rest of the way because I didn't want to be the white social work type who sticks her nose in without knowing anything and just ends up making things worse. Still, he spoke to me every once in awhile. First he said that he was sorry. I paused for a minute and then responded, "It's OK but . . . thank you." A few minutes later he said, "Rebecca, I'm sorry for wasting your time." I told him that this is what I do. I said that I didn't understand why God made a world where families like his had to struggle so much but all I could do was try to help. He said one more thing that I can't remember but that broke my heart again for this kid. I mean. He's 12 and African American and living with his mom who has no support network. Statistics alone says that he hasn't got much of a chance at a happy life. It would be weird if he didn't end up in jail one day. He knows it and I know it. And just then I got tired of backing away from the situation. I wanted to be compassionate. I wanted to be myself, even though I was interacting with a type of person I don't normally interact with. I said, "Do you the one thing that I liked about what happened up at the apartment? I liked that you threw away the knife. You didn't want to hurt anyone. You're a good kid. It's going to be really hard to remember that about yourself over the next couple of years but it's true: you're a good kid." I looked back at him both times when I said he was a good kid.
We were quiet for a little while after that. He said that maybe he would have McDonald's. I pulled into one and he asked if we could take just a minute before pulling into the drive through so he could think about what he wanted. He said he was still finding it hard to think. I pulled over into a spot (actually three spots because Yukons are gigantic) and after a minute or two he asked me what we were doing. I teased him a little and said we were waiting so he could think about what he wanted. He laughed a little and gave me his order. When I handed the bag back to him, he asked me if I liked Cheetohs. You bet I do. He then handed me a snack pack of Doritos and one of Cheetohs. He couldn't pay me back for dinner and didn't even try. Instead, he offered me what he had. I opened it right up and began eating it so that he would know that I valued what he was giving me.
We talked a little more loosely then. He asked about the family he would be staying with. I told him what I knew. And then we were back at work. I gave him a hug when we got out of the car. As we walked into the building he mock-accused me of forgetting my other bag of chips in the car. I said, "Nuh-uh!" and showed him that I had them. When we got inside, I asked him to sit in the hall and I told the Director what had happened. I didn't want to be the only one who knew. I cried a little and, apparently the Director thought that was weird because he mentioned it to one of my colleagues and said it was weird. For me, it was just about processing the adrenaline after holding it together for an hour and a half. I didn't weep for the stranglehold of poverty this sweet kid is entangled in until Jacob arrived to take me home.
There is no moral to this story. I cannot connect it to books I am reading or conversations I have been having. I have no great spiritual insight. But it seems to be an important story so I am sharing it with you.
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