The good life — and children living in fear


It has been a month, and the image has not left me. If something troubles me after a month I know I have to attend to it. Whether that be in writing, or perhaps talking with someone or calling a friend on the phone. In this case, it is simply to explore what I saw.

I was driving down Lake Street toward Uptown one hot afternoon. I went by a number of small shops on the right hand side of the street. Out of one of those doors a man flew head first, landing on his shoulder on the pavement. Another man and woman came out after him, kicking him with sharp jabs to his ribs, back, neck and head. They walked around him as he lay there and climbed into their car, laughing. I saw this in a split second. In my rear view mirror I could see a woman and man coming from opposite directions to bend next to the man on the sidewalk.

Witnessing this brutal beating left me trembling. I decided just to go home. Arriving at my own place, I thought that if I read the novel I was lost in, I could get the image of the man curled in the heat out of my mind. That strategy did not work. Since then the image has come to me again, I have felt the electrical pulse quicken. I began to realize that replaying the casual way the man and woman got into their car– no rush, no worry– was as chilling as the act itself.

What this episode has made me think about is how different my life is in its insularity from those who see this kind of violence on a weekly basis. I am fierce in my protective instincts. I know what violation, feels like. I have built a way of negotiating the world that allows me to guard my sanity by insuring a certain amount safety. I am utterly privileged in this way. But what of those children, those young adults, those old and middle-aged people who see such incidents often? What does it mean to live where a stray bullet can find your little sister or brother sleeping on a couch in the heat?

I am also not one of those who think that kids who live in areas that are threatened by gunfire or where home burglaries or break-ins occur regularly, get used to it. I do not believe they become inured to what they see around them.  I would like to believe that children learn to close it out, turn off their fear or anxiety and have hope for their own sweet lives. That would make me feel less guilty somehow, would make me comforted or relieved to know they will be just fine, even though they are in a place that can be frightening. Wanting this is wanting not to acknowledge the pain of whole communities. It is desiring to avoid the truth about our country, our city: that priorities are so skewed now that a football stadium will be built where ten games a year will be played, but more cops on the street, more child protection workers, more social workers, will never arrive.

If I can just ignore the impact of day- to- day struggles against gangs or poverty or hopelessness, joblessness, I can convince myself that anyone can survive their situation if they work hard enough. If I can forget the way my body still recoils remembering the man on the ground in front of the store that day, I can believe that the kids I have taught, the kids teachers work with each day from neighborhoods that are  troubled, don’t see or hear or feel in the pit of their stomach the fear I felt, safe in my car, going along the Lake Street. But I can’t ignore or forget. I know from the trembling voices and the anxious questions that kids asked when I taught, that they live in a state of alert because they have to, because it is how they survive. The fact is, that living in this state has its price. It works on the body and the soul and it grinds a hard working parent down, a lively third grade boy into despondency.

And while I am astounded at the resiliency of so many of the kids I worked with over the years, at the superhuman effort of their parents who held down two jobs to keep them fed and clothed and supplied with books from the library, I know that trauma works on us. It hovers over our mornings. It churns in our stomach and eats at our sense of security, our belief in possibilities.

I no longer work in public schools on a daily basis, and I find it humbling that while I read and go to panels and talk with policy makers or teachers or principals, I am many steps removed from the visceral effects of violence.

Make no mistake. I am grateful for my relative safety. I just want it for all those kids, all those young people. I want our priorities to shift from security details at ten football games to security for families three hundred and sixty five days and nights. Our children aren’t protected from the effects of having to live in fear. It does not flow off them. It sinks in somewhere and it stays.