There is something about standing in the hallway of a school…
watching the students walk by, wondering who these young people might be in the future. A political leader, entertainer or a visionary ushering in a new era in medicine or science? In some neighbourhoods, despair hangs over the path forward. What would the future be, for youth from so-called high-risk-priority-neighbourhoods, if they given the opportunities to down hallways in communities not suffocating in poverty and violence?
I stood in the hall of a middle school where a previous student was recently in the news for killing someone at a major shopping centre. As two boys walked past me, I imagined that former student walking this very same hallway years ago: walking toward a certain, decided fate? Fate is indeed not written in stone, as I’m sure many amazing young boys took a turn and escaped the destiny written in sidewalks and carved in the air.
I waited to deliver a White Ribbon talk to a room full of 13 year old young boys about the cycles of violence they were surrounded in and needed to escape. As part of my presentation, I was going to show them the video we just had created which illustrated how some 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 behind the poem to the group of forty wide-eyed young faces: Years ago, Carlos recalls being in a packed, sweaty club after last call was announced, which becomes sobering and dreaded ‘man-up’ bell for some men at the club. ‘It’s last call and I don’t have a phone number…’
The feeling of failure for some, knowing you are going home alone, unsuccessful in meeting or picking up someone, explains why violence breaks out at this witching hour. Displays of violence can be a desperate attempt to assert and prove manhood to others, and more importantly to one’s self. Carlos recalls leaving the nightclub in a good mood, and accidentally bumping into another man. The man took this as a sign of disrespect. The man got within inches of Carlos’ face, muscles flaring , obscenities swirling as he demanded vengeance. It was time to fight.
One youth in the classroom, who was a friend of the former student now in the press for the shopping mall shooting, stood up and explained how what the man did to Carlos was part of 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 the house-of-cards that becomes the warped idea of value, worth and manhood for some men, eventually costs all of us, directly and indirectly. Going back to the story, I shared how Carlos recalled thinking to himself ‘Ok…looks like I have to fight‘ He mentally tried to create urgent energy to defend against this stranger speaking in tongues of warfare and violence.
Carlos then thought about all the friends, people across the city and planet, whose lives were lost to violence.
Young men are ready to lay their blood and floor over a pair of sneakers, over a false idea of their worth. The thought of this made Carlos well up with tears and start to cry. The man reacted to those tears as if Carlos pulled out a grenade. “WHOA, OK! OK! JUST CHILL!!” The man ran from his tears.
Asking himself ‘What just happened here??!?!’ Carlos went home and wrote How to Fight, which is featured in our collaboration video with him.
The fear of vulnerability made this man leap back as if his skin was burned by flames. Here is an excerpt from Carlos’ new book ‘Man Up: Reimagining Modern Manhood’, 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.”
Let’s start something.