I love the view today. I can hear the shouts and yelling but I smile when I do, for it is not the type of shrill shouting or vile words being yelled that normally beckon for my presence. I watch as what must nearly be a hundred kids jump, swim, scream and splash in the community pool in our city.
The streets are hot in the summer and it is a delicate time for me. No kids in school so I spend most of my time preparing for their return and praying. Time can be a friend or foe to our streets. Like anything else, time can be used by these kids for good or for evil.
During my days when the hallways of schools are swarming with them, I can be content that I am here to help them, to protect them and keep the wolves outside of the door in the hopes that those within the walls would be free to discover so much more than what they have been presented with. That within these walls they would become more than what they thought they could be, and what once seemed impossible would seem within their grasp.
When the halls are empty, I cannot protect them and help them avoid the wrong choice. So many fall so quickly back into the rhythm of the street, the ease of finding money and respect by just doing what they have watched so many others do.
For years I have watched motivational experts on television and the internet talk about becoming successful by modeling successful people. Do we not see that these young minds are following that advice? The filthy death merchant on the corner looks successful, he drives a nice car and never appears to want for anything. They are modeling. I cannot stop them but wish the clock to tick faster and get through these days so that I can try again. I maintain my sanity because I can try.
Not today. I smile today because they are not thinking about respect or street credibility or whatever else they call it today. The color of a bathing suit does not represent an allegiance or loyalty, it represents childhood and happiness. I cannot help but smile and watch as they play. I let my guard down and my fears begin to slide away, just for the moment.
I almost didn’t hear the footsteps next to me but turned my head and tore the smile from my face as I felt the approach next to my window. I instinctively reach for my hip, for the reassurance that is always there. But I am greeted by a smile. I relax and smile back. He hasn’t changed much. TJ looks like he did two years ago when he walked out of our school and out of my life.
TJ was high when we first met. He had joined up with others and left the protection of my halls to go into the woods and experiment as young people occasionally do. He had never been in trouble and I hadn’t even known his name. He didn’t have anything “on him” I had told the school, so I would not place him into my custody, but I would take him into my care.
We got to know each other and I had hope for him. We had lunch together in school occasionally and I felt as if he were staying out of trouble. One day when I saw him in the hall, he averted his eyes and tried to hide the marks on his arm that I had already seen. It was artwork to some, a way to use ink to display your sense of self. I knew better, and he knew that I knew. I had seen this art too many times. I had lost TJ. He had joined a gang.
He tried to explain and I told him that I understood. I do. I do not live on his street where survival comes in different colors. I just had hoped that he would find a way out. I heard he had picked back up with his friends and that again he was getting high. I eyed him suspiciously behind my sunglasses.
I hate myself. I hate what this job and this city has done to me. I no longer look at people and assume that they are better than they were or that they had turned their life around. No, like so many other guardians, I assume that once you have joined the forces of darkness, it is too hard to find your way back through that darkened curtain.
I ask him what he is doing. “Working,” he said smiling and pointing his still gaunt finger toward the pool that I have been allowing myself to enjoy and to hide away from my real world. “I lifeguard now.” I notice that the art is covered up by a light brown bandage, big enough to hide it from prying eyes. He sees me look, “they don’t like to see it so I hide it.”
You still hang with your crew? He smiles. I know smiles. I know when someone smiles because they are about to lie to me and want me to believe that they are smiling because their pulse didn’t just increase as they prepared to lie. I am a bit surprised because that was not this smile. “That’s not me.”
“My moms is sick and I need the work for the family,” he tells me as the smile slides away and he looks down at the ground. An adult would be proud to say that they work to support their family but he is a child, he knows that he is doing something that so many others are not capable of doing.
I am proud of him and let him know. The smile returns. It is again my turn to be shocked. “Next month I leave for boot camp and going into the Army,” he says with a true sense of pride. I do not even try to hide my surprise and my pride. I had nothing to do with his change or his desire to change, but am proud that I know it.
We part ways and he trots off to work and I roll the window up and begin to pull away. Someone once told me early on that there were too few victories on the path that we have chosen. Too not get invested or take them personally. I didn’t model that behavior. I am always part of them as they are a part of me. It hurts when I lose them. It hurts when I cannot protect them.
But that is the cost of caring that I have willingly paid so that I can experience these moments. These quick glimpses of so many that do make it out and do move on to change the world. They are few and far between, but I take them and store them behind the shield, closer to my heart. He made it and for that moment, all is right with my world. When I pull away, I pray that this moment will last forever, or even just longer that it has before. Only the hands of time and fate can tell. For now, I can again smile at the view.