What’s on the minds of many high school students these days—the start of a new school year, getting a driver’s license, worrying whether they’ll make the team, perhaps daydreaming about college and sweating over SAT exams? But that’s not what three Black male high school students told a Children’s Defense Fund audience this summer they’re thinking and worrying about.
Aijalon ‘A.J.’ Morris is beginning his senior year at Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School in Nashville, Tenn., said: “I have no friends that I grew up with. I have lost five this year and I have lost three to prison. I was in fifth grade and I lost my [first] friend. He got killed. Seventh grade, my friend killed somebody, and he’s in jail for life. From my freshman year to now, I have been to 12 to 13 funerals. And I grew up with everybody that I went to those funerals with, and now they’re gone. It’s hard to cope with it. It’s hard to—sometimes I cry all night, you know, and I ask God why.”
In middle school, A.J. was a star athlete. By eighth grade he was already receiving offers to play football in college but after he was sidelined by injuries his sophomore year, everything changed. “I lost hope. I stopped going to school. And during those times I was going through a lot with my family. I was homeless. I didn’t have anything to wear, didn’t have anything to wear to school, you know, nothing like that. I didn’t even know where I was going to get my next meal. And everything was gone.” No one seemed to care. “I remember a whole month – a whole month we ate bread. We ate toast for a whole month.”
E’Darrius Smith, a budding and talented artist, is also a rising senior at Pearl-Cohn. “I had a good friend that I grew up with . . . He ended up dying because he was robbed and he tried to fight back and they ended up shooting him in the chest. So they ended up killing him. And when I found this out, you know, I almost cried, but at the same time [you’ve] seen so many classmates and so many people …you just sort of say, ‘Man, I sort of knew that was going to happen.’”
Jermaine Simmons, a junior at Pearl-Cohn: “We live in the worst conditions where nobody helps you. And we live in a condition where you’ve got to watch your back every 30 seconds. You know, you don’t know when you’re going to get robbed, you don’t know [when] you’re going to get shot, you don’t know [when] you’re going to get stabbed. For some of us that is our reality.”
These three teens are very lucky that they have a mentor in Rev. Damien Durr, a gifted teacher/preacher, they can rely on. Damien is a member of the Children’s Defense Fund’s Nashville organizing team but also is a social and emotional counselor at Pearl-Cohn High with a special focus on helping Black male students stay out of the cradle-to-prison pipeline. A.J. now dreams of becoming a kinesiologist; Jermaine, a social studies teacher; and E’Darrius, a freelance artist, one of whose fine paintings I look at every day when I step out of CDF’s national headquarters elevator.
Where are the other neighborhood, community, school, and faith congregation mentors and role models? And where are those calling for common sense gun laws so that walking down the streets or to school is not like a showdown at the OK Corral? Where are the outreach workers from community agencies to knock on doors from time to time and see who’s there and what children’s needs might be?
The violence, poverty, and trauma these young people face would be unthinkable for anybody—and yet we leave countless children to cope with death and fear daily and often all alone. What are our responsibilities to our children and youths to offer them respect and hope and education and jobs and open up rather than close doors to a positive future?
E’Darrius said Damien Durr has been an invaluable mentor because he taught him he can’t wallow in self-pity about the circumstances he comes from—he must rise up.
But countless other youths need but lack a Damien in their lives to help them overcome the overwhelming odds threatening to drag them down. They need parents and grandparents. They need caring teachers and principals and social workers and health care workers. They need faith communities whose doors are open to compete with the drug and gun dealers. They need positive alternatives to the streets and the gangs and sadly too often to the police and law enforcement agencies entrusted to protect them. They need positive role models who have experienced many of their struggles and show them that they can overcome them with perseverance.
(Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind mission is to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.)