Big Brother, Where Art Thou?
I barely made it out of my troubled adolescence and I had resources; how can I help an underprivileged teen with everything stacked against him?
I remember 14. Uncomfortable in my own skin, my blood boiled. I hated everyone and everything. How I felt, my condition was not my fault. The world was out to get me. But what the world didn’t know was – I was fully prepared to fight back. I was going to kick the world in the nuts when it wasn’t looking.
I’m in my 40’s now, but that pissed-off adolescent is still inside me. He’s right there. He’s a victim, put upon by everyone and everything and things are NEVER his fault. Thankfully he doesn’t control me any more, but I can’t help but be sympathetic to him.
The teenage experience was so potent that it occurred to me I should attempt to put it to good use. I became a mentor to a 10 year-old African American boy – let’s call him Zack (not his real name) a little over a year ago. Zack lives in South Central Los Angeles. Our upbringings aren’t that similar. My childhood in New England was a walk in the park compared to his. Still, I know this kid. He acts how I felt. He’s 10 years old and he’s full of rage. It doesn’t define him. Yet. It’s tempered by hope, and audaciousness, pride, vulnerability and beauty. In short he’s still a kid. A great fucking kid. But the rage… the rage is creeping up on him.
How do I explain to him that the rap music he so enjoys is produced to help tenderize his brain?
That feeling, the frustration, the impotence of being an adolescent is what drove me to substance use and abuse. I think genetic predisposition may have been involved as well, but my temperamental personality was the fuse that led me to become the behavioral teenage time bomb I did. I see it in Zack. I’d love to spare him the pain of being a rebellious kid. I’d love to somehow make him understand that true rebellion has nothing to do with the guns, bitches and bling that form the soundtrack to his life. Seeing how alike we were and are in this respect leads me to the question; what can I do to save him from himself? And while I absolutely intend to try, I fear that I’m doomed to failure, if only because I know what I’m up against.
Zack is bird skinny, four and a half feet tall. He has dark black skin, scabs and scrapes up and down his arms because he’s a boy and does stupid-shit-boy-things like climbing fences and writhing on the asphalt. He’s got a disgusting tail made of uncut afro on the back of his skull - his Grandma keeps insisting he shave it off - but somehow the tail manages to survive week after week. He’s got almond shaped eyes and handsome features that make adult women sigh. When he reveals his precocious manner those same women predict a lothario in the making. On the outside Zack and I are so different. Our childhoods are separated by 30 years, 3000 miles of geography and different cultural touchstones, but we share a core emotional truth. We are incensed at how unfair the world is. The situation is completely fucked! How can everyone assume business as usual when things are so out of whack? It’s maddening. The difference is he still wears his disbelief, his outrage on the outside. I’ve got years on him during which I’ve learned to channel my anger somewhere besides blind contempt.
I don’t want to forsake him his rage though. He deserves it. He should be mad. Talk about being dealt a shit hand in life. His mother is on drugs. His father is in jail. His great grandmother does the best she can, but the woman is in her 80’s. Can you imagine being responsible for two pre-teens in your 80’s? I can’t. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD and takes prescription drugs to counter-act it. He’s got asthma (living a block away from a 10 lane freeway can’t help with that). With all that, how do I convince him that living well is the best revenge?
What scares me is that I barely scraped by. I had resources. There were people there to pick up the slack when I, repeatedly, fell short. I was given the benefit of the doubt. I was let go by police without being charged on multiple occasions. Technically I should be a felon. But I’m not. This kid has nothing. Three strikes and you are out? Try one strike and this kid is cooked. He’ll be dead or in prison. On an abstract level he knows this. I tell him I want to help him live a good life. That I want to help him navigate the treacherous waters of being a teenager so that he can come out the other side and live well. He says that sounds good. He says he wants that for himself. He reveals that he also desperately wants a cellphone, or at least a video game system. When he grows up he’d like to be a tight end in the NFL or failing that maybe become like Lil’ Wayne – were you capable of taking the long view when you were 10? How about 11? Or 12? Me neither.
To win this game he’ll need to get good grades, get an after school job, earn a scholarship or two, stay away from drugs and alcohol, avoid having anything to do with the law or the gangs that are prevalent in his neighborhood. He’ll need to do exactly opposite of what everyone he knows has done. He’ll also need to avoid hanging around anyone that might be of questionable moral character.
It’s a tall order. I wouldn’t have been able to do it. And I didn’t have an iota of doubt that both my parents loved me unreservedly.
My nihilistic idol was Sid Vicious. His is Lil’ Wayne. He parrots back the lyrics to the rap songs that form the soundtrack to his life, Lil’ Wayne, A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz. The guns, bitches and money ethos permeates his neighborhood. It’s reinforced by what he sees on TV, which, besides his brother is his only constant companion. Right now he’s still too young to possess any of the accoutrements of the gangsta lifestyle but the gears in his head are turning as to how he’ll get them.
We were at the Starbucks the other day getting a ridiculously large and expensive chocolate chip Frappuccino caramel whipped cream diabetes shake. I put the change from my purchase in the tip jar and Zack howls, “What are you doing!? Are you crazy? That’s MY MONEY!” I attempt to use the opportunity to explain the concept of karma, but he was caught up in the excitement of the moment. The demon comes out. He rolls his eyes into the back of his head and speaks as if he were possessed by the devil. Clearly he’s seen some movies he probably shouldn’t have.
“Don’t you be giving away my money!” He growls in the lowest register he can manage.
“It’s not your money.” I explain.
Over the next minute he attempts to surreptitiously steal the money and then some from the tip jar. I’m astounded by how stupid he thinks I must be. I catch him and force him to put the money back. He’s embarrassed in front of the Barista, who doesn’t find it as amusing as I do. He attempts to use the-demon-inside-me shtick as an excuse for his behavioral lapse. He talks about the “bad Zack” and the “good Zack” and the battle between the two. He’s making the connection in a quite literal way that he’s got a monster inside of him. It’s unclear which version will win out.
I can’t help but be cynical in regard to what society wants from this kid. A black boy growing up in a crappy neighborhood has to be superhuman to transcend his surroundings. How do I explain to him that the rap music he so enjoys is produced to help tenderize his brain? That the ideas, the gangsta lifestyle being glorified in the music will hasten the transformation of his freedom into the raw meat that feeds the prison industrial complex? That institutions count on his rebellion to stay financially solvent? That after he gets his growth spurt in a year or two that he will technically be a “thug” and it will be basically legal for somebody to shoot him because they are scared of the music he was listening to a little too loudly?
In short, the situation sucks. Zack is a good kid going through what many, many boys endure – the tempest that is a masculine adolescence. The same kind of physical tempest I went through. It’s natural. It’s uncomfortable and it’s rarely easy for anyone involved. Ideally there would be a 2-parent household that could nurture Zack through this tumultuous period and keep him on track day to day, but that’s not in the cards. I wish I had an answer, but the odds are stacked against him. It’s a playbook as old as time. Just ask Homer or James Joyce, Elvis or Johnny Rotten.
In the meantime all I can do is be there in the limited way that the mentoring program allows. I often want to do more. I want to play Santa Claus. An insignificant gift in my mind is HUGE for him. I could do it a hundred times over and it wouldn’t have any effect on my bottom line. But that’s not what this kid needs. I know I am doing good by spending time with him. It feels good. I like this kid. Love this kid. I want to help him overcome himself and his surroundings but in the end all I can do is stand by and watch. I have said to him in not exactly these words, “Listen kid. You got a raw deal. I get you are angry. But you need to channel the anger because the world is going to eat you up and spit you out and you will be dead or in prison before you know it. In fact, this is what is expected of you.” Let’s see if it works. I’ve pledged to give him a laptop if he makes it to his 12th birthday and he hasn’t joined a gang. I pray I get to hand that laptop over.
Jared Mazzaschi is a Los Angeles based writer. He last wrote about Kurt Cobain.