There is something about standing in the hallway of a school.
Something about watching the students walk by, imagining who these young people might be in the future. A future political leader, entertainer or a visionary ushering in a new era in medicine or science? In some neighbourhoods, something else hangs in the air: the despair over the path forward. What lays ahead in the hallway of their lives, kids from so-called high-risk-priority-neighbourhoods? What would the future indeed be, if they given the same opportunities and chances, walked down the same hallways as young people in communities not suffocating in poverty and violence?
I stood in the hall of a middle school where a previous student was in the news for killing someone at a major shopping centre. As two boys walked past me, I imagined that former student at age thirteen walking this very same hallway, toward a certain, decided fate? I imagined all the other students from previous years and what could have been. Fate is indeed not written in stone, and I am sure many amazing young boys took a turn and walked down a different path, escaping the destiny written in the sidewalks and carved in the air.
I work for the White Ribbon Campaign, who seek to engage young men in redefining ideas of masculinity and manhood. I waited to speak to room full of 13 year old young boys at this school about the cycles of violence they were surrounded in, raised up in, and needed to escape. As part of my presentation, I was going to show them a video I just had created which illustrated how young men are speaking to one another in a language of violence. It would be the first time I’d play it for anyone publicly. It was a kinetic typography video featuring our dear friend Carlos Andrés Gómez ‘s poem ’How To Fight‘, written after an incident at a nightclub in New York City.
I explained the story to the group of forty wide eyed young faces: Years ago, Carlos recalls being in a packed, sweaty club and accidentally bumping into another man. The man took this as a sign of disrespect, a sign of not respecting a fragile and delicate idea of his own identity and manhood. This meant blood. The man got within inches of Carlos’ face, muscles flaring and demanded vengeance for the disrespect. It was time to fight.
A youngster who was a friend of the former student in the press for the shooting, stood up and explained how what the man did to Carlos was the code of the streets. A price had to be paid for disrespect. To this brilliant young boy who’s very life possibly hung in the balance, I asked him to consider ‘just who exactly is paying the price?‘
Defending and protecting the house-of-cards that was this man’s warped idea of his own value, worth and manhood was costing us all, directly and indirectly. The urgency of this message cannot be overstated, how it affects men and women, boys and girls needs to be addressed. Carlos recalls mentally preparing to defend against the stranger who stood face to face, speaking in tongues of warfare and violence. Carlos then thought about all the friends and people across the city and planet, whose lives were lost to violence.
Young men were ready to lay their blood and lives on the dance floor over a false idea of their worth, valuing a perfectly un-scuffed pair sneakers over their own lives, and life itself. ” we are trained to think…
The thought of this made Carlos well up with tears. The man reacted to those tears as if Carlos pulled out a grenade. “WHOA, OK! OK!!” The fear of vulnerability made this man leap back as if his skin was burned by flames of humanity and spirit. Before you listen to the result of this experience, and watch the video we created to go with the poem, here is an excerpt from Carlos’ new book, where he talks about performing the poem before another group of young men…imagine standing in these hallways:
“Last year at Rikers Island, New York City’s infamous jail, I was visiting for an afternoon performance…I could feel the tension in the room as I walked in, the nearly two hundred young men, ages sixteen to eighteen, staring at me as though I were another added felony charge. I softened them up with goofy love poems and quirky lines, getting some of the guys to break through and finally chuckle and laugh. Then I read a poem about dancing at the club, approaching a girl on the dance floor and hoping she wouldn’t turn me down. Some of the guys were hooting and teasing in obvious empathetic nods to my own insecurities on a Saturday night out.
I had one final poem left for them, and I wanted to make it count
…So I read them my poem “How To Fight.” I slowly delivered the lines about creating a new way for us to fight and engage in our lives. I talked about being fed up with the ways we lash out at each other, how I’m tired of seeing all of these beautiful men, especially Black and Latino men, die before they are able to even start pursuing a dream that is their own. I looked out on a room of entirely brown faces -black and Puerto Rican, Jamaican and Dominican, mixed like me- with painful stories tucked behind their proud eyes. I stared at Bloods and Crips and Latin Kings and young fathers. I stared at young writers and poets and singers and dancers and basketball players and science nerds and math whizzes and kids as bad at math as I am.
As I went deeper into the poem, the room fell completely silent for the first time. There was not a peep or a whisper, just a room full of thirsty eyes staring down at me as I read them a poem. It talks about the conspiracy against our people’s beauty and worth. It talks about the trickery of us ever viewing each other as enemies. It talks about the hope shining through out of our chests, in spite of the rigged game of roulette we are forced to play.
As I got to the last few lines of my poem, I moved off the microphone for the first time and addressed a pensive, sensitive-looking kid right in front of me in the first row of bleachers. His tight cornrows and deep brown eyes took in my every word as I moved closer to him. My voice choked with emotion as I began saying the last lines of that poem as though they were written for him…
And I moved even closer, now a mere half step away from him, slowly extending my open palm,
“Let’s start something…”
I knew that if i delivered that line the wrong way, there would be a price to be paid. There would have to be, because respect in jail is everything. If someone disrespects you and is allowed to get away with it, that moment alone could cost you your life. I knew this. But I believed they wanted the same dream I did.
As I leaned forward and put my hand out, I could feel the entire room hold it’s breath. My heart beat hard against my Adam’s apple as though it might break. Before I knew what was happening I felt a hard slap against my palm, as the young men in front of me clenched my fingers, pulled himself up, and embraced me in a long hug.
Everyone clapped, Everyone stood up, None of the corrections officers told them to sit down. I looked up and saw men with tear-swollen eyes and vulnerable smiles. The dream had been made real.”
…and now ‘HOW TO FIGHT’ by Carlos Andrés Gómez
Let’s start something.