I Was Once Young Too

Some years back, an organization that catered to immigrants and refugees asked me if I could take two weeks of my summer to run a youth camp. I agreed because the organization’s founder was someone I highly respected. At that camp, I lost a young man. Lost him to a more interesting world.

He was the most different in the group. Loud-talking, carried around an edge of anger like a knife and wore his pants almost all the way down to his knees. He was not interested in the other activities which got everyone else’s attention. So I came at him with rules. I wasn’t having his bluster. And he wasn’t having me either. He quit. All of his 16-year-old self.

The next day, one of the students came up to me, said Anthony’s mother was here. I thought- I’m in trouble with an American mother now. This is not Africa where a teacher is a teacher is a teacher. Here people’s kids can be little terrorists if they want, call you all kinds of names and you just have to take it because “they gat rights” and they know it and it’s their word against yours.

In my past I’ve taught inner-city schools long enough to speak authoritatively on this. In a New York classroom, I remember a mother tearing into a classroom like a tornado to confront her son over last night’s family affairs, something about her 5th grade son telling off the mother’s boyfriend. I had stood there watching this brouhaha unfold, unable to do anything on account of being shell-shocked, and also the violence packed in the words being exchanged between mother and son could turn to blows if anyone intervened. I had to let it bleed out. That’s the memory that was playing in my mind as the Anthony’s mother approached me at the camp.

By the time she was in my face I had dug my nails into my palms ready for war, forget diplomacy. If she was going to break my bones, I needed to gouge out an eye-ball for a souvenir. She opened her mouth, “Ms. Hall, I’m sorry about my son. Please forgive him and give him another chance.” What! I’m not making this up.

First, I clearly recognized her accent as coming from somewhere in Africa. I learnt the boy’s parents were Ugandan immigrants and their son was born in the US, a first-generation Ugandan-American caught between identities and the trauma of fitting in. This knowing gave me a completely different understanding and a regret that I had not taken time to isolate the boy and listen to his story. I’d been overwhelmed with too many teenagers each demanding attention, so I blurred out the individuals that made the whole.

Anthony came back. It was in talking with him that I gained an understanding of his style which I had judged as obnoxious. I still thought it was obnoxious, but my personal feelings were now devoid of judgement against a young man. While talking, I’d told him I knew the buttocks-exposing style had its origin in prison and there was nothing worth aping about it. He said he knew all about that but it was irrelevant. Contexts change.

This boy was educating me. He said the girls liked it, and if we adults wanted it to stop, we had to make the girls not like it. He was only a peacock showing off its feathers to the peahens because he was at that stage in life. Who was I to argue with his reality? How he dressed became inconsequential, and we talked about more important things in life, about how to react to things that annoyed him, how to turn into anger to positive action, how to make respect his default setting and build power from it. 

I decided I wasn’t going to lose him again at this camp, because selfishly, I wanted him to remember me when he accepted his achievement awards later in life. I realized too that at his age, I was not a conformist either, and in fact, a relative had once come to school because I’d been suspended. I had carried around an edge of anger like a knife against oppressive authority. How did I forget that I was once young too?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *