Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Child's Survival Three Years Later

Once a year, a friend of mine gives me a set of four tickets to the Texas Rangers baseball game. The seats, which are are not too far behind home plate and slightly down the first-base line are pretty cool and allow for a great, up-close view of the field. Though I have taken friends in the past, a lot of times my friends could really care less about baseball and are just there because I asked them to go. I would much rather take a kid or teenager who can enjoy a new experience and learn about the sport I grew up loving.

At the last minute, I had one ticket left and I thought to ask Aaron (not his real name) a 9-year old whose mother was killed three years ago. I hadn't spent time with him in quite a while and I thought a baseball game would be perfect.

As soon as I got to his house, he bounded out and gripped me in a strong, tight hug saying, "I missed you!!" We hurried into the car, hoping to get there in time to see Dirk throw out the first pitch. As we drove, Aaron talked non-stop. He told me that science is his favorite subject, that he was now doing martial arts a lot and has a purple belt, that his sister was home (she's stayed with her dad ever since her mother's death), that he's no longer in football, that he has a Big Sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters, and that he gets in trouble because the teacher thinks it's always him causing the problems, but the teacher gets him confused with another boy in the class (which I thought was a very amusing way of looking at it!).

As we walked to the ballpark, he would periodically grab me to give me a big hug saying, "I miss you so much!" While we were in the seats, he put his arm around me and told me, "I just want to stay like this for a little while." When I told him I appreciated the hug but couldn't take the heat with him leaning on me, he responded with, "Yeah, I know. I'm hot, too. So just for one more minute...maybe less...and I'll be done."

Aaron has always been a hugger. He's also always been one to get in trouble and to be incredulous when you discipline him for something. He's always been active. And he's always very well behaved and listens well when we're together one-on-one. Tonight was no different...or so I thought.

We watched the game, tried to catch foul balls, and got fries after the 7th inning stretch. As the game was about to be over, Aaron turned to me and said, "I'll never forget this night," in his always very appreciative manner. He told me, "I know I won't see you again for a long time and I'm going to miss you soooo much!! I already know!" which drew a kind smile from the lady below us.

At the end of the game, we realized it was a fireworks night at the ballpark...and the Rangers have the best fireworks shows! So, excited to see it myself and to share it with the kids who were with me, I called their parents/grandparents and we stayed.

The fireworks show lasted about 20-30 minutes. We sang along with all of the current songs they played and bee-bopped in our chairs. I noticed Aaron had gotten really still. As the lights came back up, I looked over at him and his eyes were glossy with tears. I asked if he was ok. He said he was sad. He said he was thinking about his mom. My heart clenches and my eyes fill with tears thinking about it. He was six when he lost her. Three years later, he still longs for her presence.

As I reached out for him, he burst into tears. I had too much stuff in my lap. The seats were between us. I hugged him for a minute, but wanted to pull him closer and let him cry. By the time I emptied my lap and was ready to take him into my arms, he had composed himself.

I wanted to hold him. I wanted to let him cry. I wanted to be there for him if only for a minute. But he's a strong kid. He pulled himself together and showed no sign of breaking down again. It wasn't a toughened approach. He simply pulled himself together. He knew what he was feeling. He just wasn't crying about it. It breaks my heart to think he couldn't and probably won't ever get to empty himself of all of his tears.

As we walked up the stairs, he turned to me, "I'm sad." I asked if he wanted a hug and he nodded. I gave him a huge big it lifted him off the ground and carried him up a couple of stairs. He laughed and told me he could top that and proceeded to squeeze me beyond a 9-year old's strength. We laughed a little more but as we continued walking to the car, he told me a few more times that he was thinking of his mom.

I told him that my best friend lost her mom when she was nine and she's now 39 and she still thinks about her mom all of the time. (You can read her reflection about her mom here.) I wanted to comfort him, but didn't know how. He often says some violent things and referred to them then as he angrily talked about the "stupid idiot" who shot his mother. I wanted to agree with him, but tried to do it in a way that encouraged him to re-direct his anger in a way that wasn't violent so he could help other kids when he grows up.

Once in the car, he continued to tell me some things and I felt like if we spent more time together, he may confide in me more...which actually scares me a little since I don't know that I have the skills to deal with all that goes on in his mind. He talked about seeing his counselor each week, but I'm not sure he feels the same confidence in a counselor as he does in an adult who used to be his mom's friend.

I don't know how to help him. I know I need to spend more time with him. I know I need to love him. I know from his willingness to confide in me that he wants to talk about it. I want others to know him, too. I want his teachers to b able to act and re-act accordingly...without lowered expectations.

He lives with his granny and has an unwavering love and appreciation for her. But he still needs to feel the unconditional love that only a mother can give. I want him to know that her love is inside of him, even though I know that knowledge can't fill the void. I want him to feel complete so that he can grow and develop and be everything he ever or she ever wanted him to be.

I know there are other Aaron's all around me...and my prayers go for them as well.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Perfect Teacher

I often get frustrated about our education system. I am bothered by what our kids are forced to learn and what they aren't learning. I hate that kids miss out on so much experiential, meaningful learning because of the multiple choice bubbles they have to learn to fill in.

Reading this essay from Larry James' grand daughter gave me so much hope. My hope is that every teacher who reads this realizes what is important and meaningful to children and what even 3rd graders recognize is important to making our world a better place.

The Perfect Teacher
By: Gracie Toombs

There are many kinds of teachers. Some tall, some small. Some Teachers just speak matter of fact like. Some teachers just Teac the way Textbooks tell them to. But the best teacher’s lessons don’t come from a textbook. Her lessons come from her heart. If you were uneasy, mad or sad—the perfect teacher comforts you. She loves each and every child for who he or she is. This year, I am one of the 21 fortunate third graders who are in her class. I like all teachers, but this year, she has stood out to me. She opened up her heart to every student in my class. She has taught us sooo much this year. Sure, she’s taught us reading and math. But that’s not the most important thing. She has taught us about protests in the middle east and the struggle in Japan and how it effects us. For black history month, she had us memorice speeches about Seggregation and Women’s rights. While the other classes were just reading from textbooks, we were there—at theose freedom marches and protests. For earth day, We helped the world by making New paper from recycled paper. We also planted sprouts, While all the other classes jus colored bookmarks. We gave water to people in Africa through The water She has taught us life skills: kindess, love, Peace, organization, and sefl esteem. But those aren’t the most important thing she did for us. She has told us to stand up to injustice, that we could be anything we wanted, and the we can change the world. But it is not us. It’s her. The other classes may say they learn more then us but you can go up to any one of them and ask them about protests in the middle east, or the struggle in Japan or about changing lives in Africa or about life skills or about standing up for what we believe in and trust me, They won’t know as much as WE do. Sometimes it only takes ONE TEACHER tho change the whole world. And that teacher is my third grade teacher MISS CORNETT.

note: All writing and spelling was typed in just as Gracie had it on her paper.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Beware of Typos!

One of my big pet peeves is seeing grammar mistakes in professional arenas...whether that's billboards, websites, books, signs, menus, etc. It makes me wonder about the quality of the organization or company behind it. Do they not have spell check? Are they not competent enough to know they missspelled? If that company is willing to put something out without checking it, should I frequent that business? It makes me question their quality and truly turns me off. One of my friends and I call it PDI (Public Display of Incompetency).

Of course, I realize it makes me more susceptible to critique as well. But, personally, I would much rather someone tell me I have a grammar error so I can correct it and learn from it...and hopefully not do it again. So, when I saw these guys going across the country correcting, it made me smile. Maybe I can get my own correction kit the next time they're in town selling their book.

Monday, June 20, 2011

"Do you have good religion?"

Ever since reading The Children, by David Halberstam, I've been a huge fan of Rev. James Lawson. (Did I mention huge?? Completely in awe of him, might be more accurate.) So, I was excited when I got to church last Sunday and noticed that he was the scheduled preacher of the day. As expected, he did not disappoint.

"Do you have good religion?" he started. The topic already interested me.

"I know God has a hand on my life, but I have questions about what religion has convinced me to believe," he continued. I'm quickly getting sucked in and started wondering, "How is he going to break this down...and what is he going to say that I can apply to my life?"

It was very apparent to me that Dr. Lawson doesn't live in his Civil-Rights-hero past. He is very much in the present. However, to illustrate his point, he told about his experience on the Freedom Ride. He explained that during the stop where they were beaten and then arrested and put in jail, they experienced a lot of hatred and terrible actions. While in jail, they dealt with one guard in particular who was terribly abusive. Yet, even while experiencing the hatred and evil that came from him, Dr. Lawson recognized, "This man is a neighbor according to Jesus."

Wow. My faith just came alive again! All of a sudden, I had a new realization of what I do and why I do it! In the incidents I briefly explained in my last post, the drug dealer is a neighbor. The guy who was so "out there" on drugs that he traumatized several people is a neighbor. The guy who jumped me a few years ago for a few dollars is a neighbor.

Dr. Lawson went on to explain how they approached the situation in the jail cell. "We will try to treat that man the way he did not treat himself," he told everyone and then explained to the guard, "You are still a child of God and we will still treat you as our neighbor."

Again, wow. That is powerful stuff!

And what was the result of their actions? 


Did it work for everyone? No. Was it over night? No. Is racial reconciliation perfect today? No. But by approaching everyone as a child of God, what Dr. Lawson realized was that, "We have the opportunity to help our neighbor and to help them come alive--NOT by asking them if they have been saved!"

Dr. Lawson realized that the most powerful way to demonstrate Christ is not to ask if they've been saved or to work on "saving" them. After all, we can't save someone else, anyway, can we? The most powerful demonstration of Christ is to treat the person like a neighbor who doesn't even treat himself that way.

Our world is different today because of what people like Dr. Lawson did back then. How can I do my part today to make the world different for the generation behind me? The lesson is no different and it is no small statement.

Treat even the seemingly most "untreatable" as my neighbor.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"I bet that's a rewarding job!"

Often, when I tell people that I work for CitySquare, a non-profit, and explain the job I do either with kids or adults, a pretty common response is, "I bet that is such a rewarding job!"

Ninety percent of the time I whole-heartedly agree. It is a very rewarding job in many senses. However, what I often think people who say that have no idea of the challenges, time, and effort that it takes to get to those "rewarding" moments.

This has been one of those weeks where I believe there is no executive that has as much emotional and physical involvement in their work to deserve their million dollar salaries...and that if our society is to work, we truly should tip it on it's head. The people in direct service to the community deserve the million dollar salaries and the execs sitting in their comfortable, air conditioned offices dictating what happens so that they can increase their bottom line (i.e. their pockets) should be the ones making the salaries well under $100K. (And if any execs are out there reading this, I only half-heartedly apologize.). If you know me, I'm not a money person at all...and I don't think that upping our salaries would change anything about what we do. But the way we value people in "high places" is so absolutely backward!

But back to my week...

I always hesitate to tell anyone about the challenging side of my job because I know these one-time events usually create defining moments for people who like to tell others about why they don't live in low-income communities and why they're so scary. So, just to put perspective here, I have been at CityWalk for three months now and it has been a pretty calm community from everything I've been a part of. On the flip side, Keller, TX (a very wealthy suburb) recently had a fatal stabbing right in the middle of a street just last craziness happens everywhere...and drugs are irrespective of neighborhoods...and affect everyone around them. I could go on about the comparisons, but I'll save that for another post.

This week started by events that led to an intervention with a drug dealer/user who was conning people for money. I knew the dealer fairly well (though didn't realize he was dealing...or using). As that situation grew, I then ended up working to calm the people he had conned from doing harm to him, potentially causing them to risk their own housing and well-being. Later in the week, we were forced to confront a very serious situation where several people were nearly physically harmed and definitely emotionally harmed because of a man who decided to use a substance much more serious than alcohol or marijuana. There was definitely more to that situation and to the week, but I don't have the energy to retell it all. Just know it was a physically and emotionally challenging week.

As I ranted to a friend about my physically and emotionally trying week I became even more overwhelmed and more emotional when I realized that none of it included the regular job duties I still have to outcomes reports, grant reports, managing new interns, getting our webpage ready, and so much more that seems so trivial in the whole scheme of things, but that becomes so much more important to someone who wants to know what we're accomplishing. So, even though this week and these situations have brought out my own realizations of vulnerabilities that I need to process and deal with, by Monday I still have to get together those reports for the other entities involved.

Working "on the ground" is not for everyone. Events like those that have happened this week remind me  that good intentions, a soft heart, and a giving spirit is not enough...and not necessarily what our communities need. We must have a strong commitment to spotting leadership and working with people to equip them with the resources they need to fulfill their goals. We must believe in creating safe communities with and for the people in those communities as much as we want them for ourselves. We must listen to our neighbors to know which systems and activities in the community need to be challenged. We must work with them and for them to challenge broken systems that are in place...despite the resistance that I promise you will face if you are fighting with and for people in poverty. We must create relationships with all people so that those who have been hurt so long can trust us and those who are hurting themselves will understand that we have such a love and concern that we are here to help when they get ready...though also letting them know that may not mean they get to be a part of our stuff in the meantime. For some, we have to remove them from our programs until they are ready so that their behaviors don't hinder the majority who simply need resources, information, and guidance, and are so ready to access what is available. We must realize coddling and charity doesn't help long term progress.

After weeks, days, and/or moments like I've had this week, I could give up. I haven't quite felt like that, but I have contemplated getting to my bed, pulling the covers over my head, and curling up in a fetal position. First hand experience with these incidents definitely makes me realize how messed up our world is. It makes me realize how little I am in this world. I've had moments of being extremely irritated at God for this stupid idea of "free will." But these moments also makes me pray, reflect, and refocus.

Every time stuff like this happens, though, I am always reminded of the rest of the people in the community who have no choice but to deal with those kinds of things on a more regular basis than I do because of their income...because of the broken systems...because of their lack of connections.

It is because of them, I see hope.

This morning when Mr. McCoy's name popped up on my phone, I was very tempted not to answer. Yet, when I did, he simply wanted to know the time for the Financial Education classes that are starting in a few weeks. He and Ms. Leslie (who have already graduated from the class) are recruiting people...on a Saturday the lobby at CityWalk...without any of the rest of us there.

Now that's leadership!

That's progress!

That demonstrates what our community is all about.

That defines our community.

And that is what keeps me going.

It's the Mr. McCoy's and Ms. Leslie's of our community (and there are a lot of them) who deserve a safe community with lots of opportunities and activities. Because of them, this tough week is just a fading spot on the radar.

They are the reason I continue.