This post was first written in part as a letter to a dear friend who shared this book with me.
This past weekend, I completed the book, The Short And Tragic Life of Robert Peace . Within its pages, I was reminded of so many all too familiar things and experienced a rollercoaster of emotions. I was torn a bit whether my sincere efforts were in vain, thinking some of the children I’d worked with over the years. Although the title of the book foretold the ending, I still found myself hoping. Hoping with the same type of hope that I’ve carried with me most of my life.
I recall a dream I had when my older children were just babies and I was employed by Boys and Girls Club. In the dream I was working with a group of boys varying in age. Much like what I did in real life. At a point in the dream, they all turned into chalk outlines on the pavement. I knew each one of them still. They were more that crudely drawn figures to me. I was walking among them when I felt raindrops. I knew the rain would wash away the chalk and they would be no more. I found an umbrella and frantically ran around in an attempt to shelter them from the erasing rain. I cannot explain the impending grip of helplessness that was tightening in my chest. I continued until I woke up. At that point in my life I doubled down on the work of trying to “save” the children. It’s taken me the greater part of my life to realize that I cannot save anyone. This book about Robert Peace was a jolting reminder that hangs heavy in my chest.
The day after I completed the book I was in an old Huntsville neighborhood across from where the community library used to be. I was standing in the yard of a newly acquired property, surrounded by contractors and their crews. From down and across the street a young man was calling out. All eyes turned to him. Then I could hear that he was saying my name. When he ran over and made his way to me, I recognized him as a former student. He was really animated and wanted to show me some of his drawings. I told him to bring them by sometime. He took off in a dead run and returned a short while later with an armful of artwork. He stood there excited like a little boy as I laid his work out on a flat surface in the house while a contractor looked on. Slowly and deliberately, I leafed through the work and commented on each, sparking tidbits of life discussion. He kept saying, eyes to the contractor, how he loved my class and still remembered what I had taught him. It’s as if he was trying to convince me and brag to the contractor about our connection. The ink on his arms and neck as well as some of the drawings was a revelation of his gang involvement, former or present. I did not ask, but I did let him know that I knew. That’s the perpetual fatherness in me. My relationship to him was what it was. In the moment he was a wide-eyed boy basking in the joy of my acknowledgement of his artwork – an affirmation of him. We talked a little longer and he left after our agreement to keep in touch.
No sooner had I walked back outside into the the yard with the others when I heard my name called again. A young man was passing by in a sleek black luxury SUV, waving his hand out the window. I waved and hollered back with no idea who it was. I kept going withy my conversation. A short while later an excited voice drifted from the edge of the yard. I heard my name. That young fella had turned around, parked his car, and came up to the yard. He was in the process of telling one of the men that he knew me and that I had a profound impact on his life. When I walked up, he came briskly forward wearing a wide eager grin and embraced me, hard.
The next few minutes felt like a little family reunion as he brought me up to speed on his life. I felt proud. Proud of him. Proud of the confidence he exuded and proud to know him. We exchanged numbers and agreed to keep in touch. He left smiling with a smile even brighter than when he walked up. I’m sure mine was no less. By now, I could see the contractors faces wracked with curiosity. In my chest I felt a wave of something that felt like fresh air blowing. Perhaps it was the spirit of knowing that I only have to do what I can and that is rooted in being who and what I am. I thought again of Robert Peace, still with a layer of sadness. But now with a renewed sense of knowing that true hope is an action word. Something that, once planted, has to be nurtured and cultivated but ultimately it’s up to the plant to sprout, break through the soil, and grow from there. I had just received two reminders.
The story would have ended there but the next morning I was back at the house to let the contractors in. I walked out to look over the vintage brick (I love vintage brick). A young man was hoisting the broken pieces into a bag. I looked at his face and he at me. The recognition was instant. He was also a former student. The conversation opened up, kicked into gear, and drove quickly down the road of his life story. He had moved back to another city with his mother and siblings. He shared that he’d played football and become a star player with regular newspaper coverage and all. In his senior year he had been offered several athletic scholarships. At least two of which were full rides. His school was a lot like the one he attended where I taught – gritty and tough. They had a no tolerance policy on fighting -instant expulsion. “It was about two weeks before graduation,” he shared. This dude went and put his hands on me. Well, I did what I had to do. They expelled me. I had expelled on my transcript. Didn’t even graduate. Came back here, working , man.” Refraining from advising, I turned the corner on the conversation and we had some laughs and dug into deeper stories and analytics about history and growing up in the south being other than white. He had four boys to take care of now. At his age, I know that’s rough. That thing in me kicked in again. I wondered how I could help. Then I feared down on the brakes. Let’s any in touch, I said. We both agreed as I left to head to my studio. Things come in threes, I’d heard many times growing up – referring to events either good or bad. Three young black males had returned to my orbit in less that 24 hours, following the day I completed that book. I’ll take them as reminders. Reminders that it’s not all about what I did for them but what they also did for me, inspired in me. The pride I felt standing in their presence for having made it this far, still with drive and esteem intact, was proof that the relationships were reciprocal. With that, we will continue…
Take care and keep the faith,