Eshu’s blues: Field days for gumbo ya ya

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When a Black teenager accidentally shoots his best friend, it is “all just one more weekend, one of those lunatic moments when one young Black man kills another young Black man, and once all the usual sociological theorizing rolls by, no one really knows why, except that it happened, and it’s to be expected, somehow.”  The author, who was both boys’ teacher, wonders “how the dividing line between play and the reality of what a firearm is became blurred.” For too many urban adolescents, “an acquaintance with firearms becomes as casual as the presence of the television remote.”

by BAR columnist michael hureaux

The newspapers will lie

abt all this.  abt these

12 year olds throwing

stones at the cops.  They

wanted to get at some sun

no matter what heavy

traffic was coming down

on them.– Ishmael Reed

Last summer, a young man I know picked up an automatic handgun that he did not realize was loaded, and accidentally shot one of his closest friends through the heart.  I did not hear of this tragedy until months after it had transpired, just a couple of weeks ago.  Both these young folks were former students of mine, and I am still in the somewhat numbed shock that urban educators use as a coping mechanism whenever a seat in the classroom becomes emptied through violence, whenever the bottom drops out of reality and kneecaps us.

Marvin and Brendan both left the program a while back, the first young man having graduated two years ago, and the second, one of those young folks who could not bring himself to formal academic discipline in any consistent way.  Marvin had fairly good organizational skills, so we were able to help him work his way through to commencement, and up until the tragedy last summer, the last we heard of him was that he was seeking to apply to one of these “one year wonder”  programs that have managed to pass for trade schools in the last few years. Brendan we had to seek another program for, as he was with us for two semesters and failed to receive credit either time, so we needed to find placement for him in a program that we thought could better suit his learning needs.   The reality was that Brendan’s skill level tended towards deep remediation, and when he came to us, he needed an enhanced individualized education plan that our school, due to its size, was unable to deliver. 

Ridiculous though it may seem, remediation, or special education even in alternative schools is one of those areas which the “efficiency” experts have managed to stigmatize in the name of achievement, and hence, many students are now “mainstreamed” long before they should be.   While it is true that special education in the past has been used to “track” students of color, it is also true that many students of color, and many working class kids are in genuine need of special education, or individualized learning plans.  This is very often true of students who come from homes where, for whatever reasons related to family, basic survival or cultural distrust, there is a disrupted learning atmosphere (domestic violence, protracted unemployment, complete homelessness, etc).  The education environment is not solely directed by political economy, but all the good will and hard work in the world will not transcend the kinds of stress noted here and its real impact upon people. 

“Many students of color, and many working class kids are in genuine need of special education, or individualized learning plans.”

Marvin and Brendan were both characters, and sometimes devastatingly funny in a way that can rapidly bring ruin to the lesson plans of those teachers like me who have a hard time hanging onto the “bad cop” persona for months on end.   Both of them were of that eternal fraternity of public school students who hang at the back of the classroom, halfway engaged with the lesson plan of the day, forever intrigued with computer games or the cultural trend of the moment.  Marvin had better command of math concepts. Brendan constantly displayed high numeracy, but had very likely never been in any learning environment where teachers could figure out how to scaffold outward from the skills he actually possessed in such a manner that he could remain engaged in a classroom environment.

By the time Brendan came to us, his trust quotient was so low that he survived at our school through a time-tested method, that of relying upon better prepared peers like Marvin in a self-created tutorial.  The problem was that Marvin’s own proficiency was limited, and it wasn’t enough to carry Brendan through to the achievement of academic credit on even a quarterly basis.  Still, we worked with this support unit these two young people established for themselves as best we could, but it turned out to be one of those instances where the center pieces could not hold out against the wilder end pieces.   There simply wasn’t enough field independence – or a consistent support/ learning environment away from the school – for Brendan to make the grade, and so we had to move him on, for fear too much time would be lost for him by remaining enrolled at Middle College, which at year’s end we concluded wasn’t serving him adequately.

It’s not easy to make a decision like that for a learning community that wants to advocate for urban students, but one of the few privileges left to critical pedagogy is that most alternative schools are small enough and informed enough to make the decision to move a student on, as opposed to having a student moved on by bureaucrats who are completely out of touch with the specific blocks posed to the learner in question.  The important thing is not to engage in the defense of a mistake, and our belief that we had enough resources at our school to serve a student with the needs Brendan had was profoundly mistaken.  Things unfolded as they had to at a strictly technical level, and sometimes that’s the only option a teaching structure has.   So we all went our separate ways in time and space.  The sole positive feature of the set-up was that the nurturing relationship Brendan and Marvin formed through their enrollment at Middle College held, and Brendan enthusiastically attended and celebrated Marvin’s graduation, even though he was not a high school graduate that year. 

“Our belief that we had enough resources at our school to serve a student with the needs Brendan had was profoundly mistaken.”

And that’s how I like to think of the two of them, forever in each other’s corner, come what may.  I can still hear their high pitched cackle the day I mistook a loud argument about the computer game Grand Theft Auto for real threats to people who they were shouting about blasting or running over.  I thought they were playing a loud game of what we used to call “the dozens” which was getting out of control, so I asked them to step aside with me to defuse the “situation.”  What a fool believes, as the old song goes.  But there was no harm done, at least in that moment.

What puzzles me, as it does everyone else who knew these two young men, the question the family of neither boy can answer, is how the dividing line between play and the reality of what a firearm is became blurred.  I’m aware it happens all the time in this country; people everywhere kill each other under the perception that a gun is something to be gamed with.  Folks with street cred say it’s a notion readily found among street kids, where for many urban adolescents, an acquaintance with firearms becomes as casual as the presence of the television remote.   Cultural theorists say it’s the prevalence of violence in television and film, in video game displays, in mainstream hip hop, etc.  Some simply say that it’s an indifference regarding life and death that falls upon young people too long accustomed to both the wannabe and real gangsterism that prevails in too much of youth culture, and it’s true that Brendan’s death at the hands of Marvin happened over a weekend when three other shootings occurred in South Seattle.  Any of the above, or all, maybe contributed to that moment when Marvin picked up that .32 automatic, “playfully” pointed it at someone he cared for as a brother, and accidentally killed him.  I don’t know.  Does anybody really know how they fall into place, how these things unfold?

All anyone knows for certain is that there was no animosity or disagreement between the two at the time of the tragedy.  But today, Brendan is dead, and Marvin, who tells anyone who will visit him as he awaits trial for third degree manslaughter that he did not know the gun was loaded, faces the possibility of ten to twenty years in prison.  The technical details of the moment are all we get as the state of Washington tries to decide what it’s going to do with the life of this young Black man who had no previous major offenses.

“For many urban adolescents, an acquaintance with firearms becomes as casual as the presence of the television remote.”  

The larger terror at this moment is that it was in the newspaper, and that the news of the tragedy got clean by so many of us – me, my colleagues, and the peers of the two adolescents.  It was all just one more weekend, one of those lunatic moments when one young Black man kills another young Black man, and once all the usual sociological theorizing rolls by, no one really knows why, except that it happened, and it’s to be expected, somehow.  The assumption “You know how those people are” continues to carry the day in the great “progressive” enclave of the Pacific Northwest, and it creeps between all of our ears, this desire of the owners of this country that we should distrust and fear each other, or even ourselves.

Older people in my family refer to something called gumbo ya ya, which has a number of meanings.  The mildest kind of gumbo ya ya is just when everyone is trying to talk or sing their story at once, which is what we all usually encounter at family gatherings or church dinners or block parties.  Gumbo ya ya ratchets up from there and can be benign or malevolent, the worst forms being the internalized purge of civil war.  These days, from where I’m sitting, it’s looking like gumbo ya ya is still climbing into the saddle.  

Between the recent death of Brendan Wilkins, and the small war which is simmering between black and Latino youth in this neighborhood according to both my students and Junior, who heads up the gang intervention effort at the Southwest Community Center up the way, it appears to me that things are falling apart just as fast as they always have.  More and more kids are fighting and killing each other over the eggshells and the coffee grounds in the garbage.  There are nowhere near enough literacy or work programs for adults, let alone young people.  There are not enough paying apprenticeships that will route our young into work that pays enough to raise or support a family, there are not enough cultural or after-school programs, and what remains of community health, mental health and dental clinics are the newest hustle for the business groupies, and on it all goes.

There is, however, a plethora of screaming distractions, spectacular entertainments which celebrate bullying and the cheap shot as a form of “relaxed exchange” and a growing acceptance among all our peoples that the wholesale destruction of a different people on the other side of the world is a wholly acceptable option in the pursuit of some allegedly benign purpose.  To paraphrase the education theorist Neil Postman, no tyrant in his wildest dreams could have imagined this moment we live in, a time in which truths which do not amuse or entertain would be casually swept under the carpet, to be dealt with once the feel-good celebrations are over with. 

I’m tired of watching kids of color and other working class kids kill each other, in serious or playful emulation of the political gangsters who have driven this country since time immemorial.  If President-Elect Barack Obama is for real, well, then Hallelujah, and the devil take those of us who never saw the glory of the day in his face.  But may Obama or whoever else be damned if they oppose what higher aspirations have been raised among so many working people by this election.  The proof of the thing is in the whole picture, not just its glossier aspects. 

michael hureaux is a writer, musician and teacher who lives in southwest Seattle, Washington.  He is a longtime contributor to small and alternative presses around the country and performs his work frequently. Email to: [email protected]

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