Hugs from A’Lana* are one of my favorite parts of the day. If its a good day I’ll get three or four. She’s a ten-year-old sweetheart with a knack for getting into trouble. She has a hard time staying in class, and she’s known to fight. But she’s got a smile that will light up the whole hallway and a hug that is always guaranteed to melt me.
First thing this Monday morning I was getting in my morning A’Lana hug outside the cafeteria while other students were filing in for breakfast. As I squeezed her tight and played with her hair, I asked her how her weekend was. “Scary, Mrs. Hamby!” “Why was it scary?” I asked. She proceeded to tell me the whole traumatic tale. Over the weekend she came over to the school playground to play since she lives right down the street. The school was surrounded by cops, as she drew close she realized that a fifteen-year-old boy had been shot in the leg and then in the head in a gang skirmish. He was dead. His mother and A’Lana’s mother are close friends. In fact, A’Lana’s mother is the one who had to call his mother with the news. Not a privilege I’d ever want to have.
I spent my morning today with two more sweethearts with a reputation for trouble. This ten and eleven-year-old brother duo has been suspended so many times this year for fighting that they’ve both been kicked out of school until September. They have to keep up with their studies through virtual programs. The only reason they were even at the school today was for testing. Honestly, if I didn’t know these boys had been suspended so much, I never would have guessed it from my time with them today. Away from their antagonistic peers, the boys were calm, very respectful, and quite enjoyable to be around. They were just boys – kids who like to see who can swing the highest and climb the fastest.
In between their tests, I gave their brains and little antsy bodies a break with a jaunt to the playground. It was a gorgeous day, and although they were sad their former classmates weren’t outside with them, the boys had each other and seemed to enjoy their recess. I challenged them to a swinging contest and on my way over to the swingset I noticed the fresh graffiti job on the side of the school.
It stands for Self-Made Niggas, and its the signage of the neighborhood gang. You’ll find those letters everywhere within blocks of the school. There are people that think Detroit doesn’t have a gang problem, because most of the major gangs that ravage Chicago and LA haven’t staked a claim here. Instead of large gangs, Detroit is rampant with smaller neighborhood gangs. Gang experts say targeting countless small gangs is daunting, because instead of a few major gang signs, codes, and ringleaders to keep track of, there’s literally a different code and contact in every little neighborhood in Detroit. Neighborhood gangs are constantly at odds with each other, and its difficult to stay on top of who is currently fighting who. Instead of long-time rivalries that exist in larger cities, the clashes between neighborhood gangs may change often. Gangs here are more into reputation than money – which is sometimes scarier, because they are willing to do anything reckless to get their name on the map.
I spent this afternoon with Cai*, one of my new favorite kids on the planet. He is also eleven-years-old, and has a mouth bigger than the rest of him put together. This boy can NOT at any point stop moving or talking, I’m convinced. He’s not afraid to say anything to anybody, and despite his skinny self, he will throw a punches right along with his trash talking. (In case you hadn’t picked up on it by this point, my job currently entails giving individual attention to the worst-behaved kids in one of the worst schools in Detroit.) He sounds like a tough case, but truthfully he is really irresistibly endearing. He is a total charmer when you give him more than a minute and get him by himself. It took me several months to get through to him – he used to just start cussing up a storm as soon as he would see me walking down the hallway! But a little patience, some hugs and kindness, and a I’m-not-giving-up-on-you attitude finally wore him down and now we get along just great.
He’s just a boy, too. He loves football, he’s good at math. He loves to hide and play jokes. He’s got a killer smile and a contagious laugh. He’s a complete goofball. He has a different girlfriend every week – the innocent kind of 5th-grade romance, where everyone nonchalantly breaks up with each other, laughs about it, and moves on to the next person in the class.
Cai was on a roll today. He thinks he’s hot stuff, thinks SMN are his bros, and thinks the neighborhood gang is the place to be. He’s eleven years old, in case you didn’t remember. He was supposed to be doing math, but instead was bouncing around the room making up his own rap to an instrumental beat he found on YouTube. “If being in a gang is illegal, then take me straight to jail. I’m with SMN forever…” The rest of his rap was full of “F— you’s” to the guys who shot the fifteen-year-old this weekend. I found out the kid’s name was Tyrone* and that he used to go to this school.
I hate that I have to wonder if Cai will live to see his twenty-first birthday. I hate that I have to wonder how long it will be before the criminal justice system interrupts his life. The kid is brimming with potential. He is so full of energy and talent its almost ridiculous. The earth seriously needs human beings like Cai. But this boy needs a miracle. A’Lana needs a miracle too. So do the 600 other little ones at the school.
I’m reminding myself today that I live for miracles. I have to live for miracles. I’ve been ruined for anything less glorious. Anything less is a waste of time. There’s no point in living for anything less than supernatural wonder on the earth. If you are a friend of God and if you believe in miracles, would you ask Him for miracles for my kids today? Ask Him to intervene. Ask Him to grab the attention of their wandering little hearts. Ask Him to spare their lives from the dullness of death and destruction. Ask Him to give me words of life on my lips and the power of love in my hands each day.
(*Names have been changed for the security of my students.)