Whenever there is urban unrest following a death of a young man at the hands of law enforcement, especially a young Black man, the word “thug” is brought forth, not only to dismiss outpourings of rage and violence the death might inspire, but to imply that the person dying some how deserved their fate and would not be missed.
I cannot stand silent when the term is used that way. It was the same term applied to many of the young people I coached and mentored during the 15 years I was coaching and running sports leagues in Brooklyn from the early 80’s to the late 90’s.
There were many young men in our youth program, which was based in Park Slope, but drew from Red Hook, Boerum Hill, Bedford Stuyvesant, and occasionally as far away as Bushwick, who were feared by other coaches and parents, and occasionally by teachers and school officials. Some of them were the most talented athletes we had; others were merely angry, troubled young people looking for a physical outlet for their emotions.
I refused to give up on them. Working with other coaches and league directors, some of whom were police officers, who believed no child was a prisoner of their fate, we created spaces where these young men could express their emotions without destroying the atmosphere required to maintain a team or a league; where they could find an outlet for their energy and athletic talents, where their leadership skills could be recognized, and where they could find love and support and mentoring when they were desperate.
Sometimes that meant more than sports- it meant taking them into our homes, getting them tutors, organizing them into reading groups, finding the right schools for them.And lo and behold, many of these “thugs,” over time, underwent profound personal transformations, becoming star athletes at their high schools, attending community colleges and four year schools, entering the work force and becoming parents themselves. None ended up in prison.
The faces and names of these young people, and the fear they once inspired, are etched in my memory as a reminder that no child- and teenagers are still children- should be written off because they are angry and rebellious, much less defined for life through their actions in such a way as their deaths can be justified.
That was my philosophy as a teacher and a coach.
It is also my mantra as I survey the current political landscape.
Poetic Justice Reflects:
A long time ago, I stopped using the term “thug” to describe the young people I teach and counsel every day. There was a “check” in my spirit. It felt like my words were perpetuating the inequality and injustice I was seeing done daily to my students. I stopped using that word. It broke my heart to hear our president use it this week to describe the young people in Baltimore.
As Dr. Naison expresses in his blog post, “Every child is precious. Every child has potential. Every child in trouble should be viewed as someone in transition to a better place, not someone who deserves a life of misery.”
The message we need to give our young people is – we love you – without conditions – we love you because we see you as you will be when you grow up – we love you and we have faith in you.
My job as a public school teacher should not be to call the cops on my students. That the “school to prison pipeline” exists is bad enough. I refuse to be part of this pipeline that channels children into a second class citizenship. I refuse to look at my students as “less than” and “not good enough” and as “those kids” and as “thugs”.
Sometimes I feel like I am a lone voice crying out to save the children. We need more educators decrying the injustice, and the inequity, and the disparate treatment in our public schools.