January 09, 2007

A Lesson about Love

Kids in Gangs are Screaming That They Need Love!

When I got to Eisenhower High School in Yakima, Washington, for my first day on the job as an English teacher, I received a real education about the complicated issue of dealing with Gangs and it was pretty graphic. On that first day on the job we met with all of the staff at the school; the kids were not due until the next day. What took place on that day was that we divided all of the employees who worked in the building into two large groups and went into two of the largest rooms in the school to discuss a couple of key problems we would be facing in the upcoming year.

I was new to the school, so I was very hesitant to enter this discussion. I felt it best to just sit back and listen to get a feel for my new faculty and this school that was new to me. The group school employees that I was in was to discuss what we as a staff were going to do about the “gang problem” that we would most surely face in the upcoming year. You see I quickly learned that the federal government had come to the Yakima School District and informed us that we could not continue to operate a school district with two high schools of such differing racial make up. Davis High School had something like 68% “Minority” students while Eisenhower had only about 5% “Minority” students. Both schools were under the authority of one school board, and we were given the edict to integrate the two schools or else the district would face federal intervention or loss of funding.


This meant that Eisenhower was going to have to welcome many more of the Mexican population into our school because we had to. The plan was to integrate the two schools by using active recruiting and what are known as “Magnet Programs” that draw kids to schools by presenting opportunities. Beginning this year, Eisenhower was going to offer a whole bunch of new classes in English as a Second Language to draw the Mexican student population to our school.

It worked!

(I must say here that the Yakima School District was amazingly successful in this endeavor and has built a very equal distribution of students from all ethnic groups in both of the high schools and they did it with some amazing leaders like Dr. Steve Mitchell who was principal of Eisenhower for four of the years of this wonderful time of peaceful integration of the two schools.)

I was sitting in the room with half of the faculty and we were to discuss how we could be proactive in denying gang activity among our student body. This very discussion was rooted in some rather irrational fears with their origin in the fact that in the town of Yakima there is a very small portion of the Mexican population who control the Cocaine and Marijuana traffic for most of the entire northwest region of the country. This drug traffic is controlled by a few very strong and violent Mexican gangs and the rest of the Mexican population suffers from the extreme misconception that Mexican kids are gangsters. This was a fact that we soon began to see as false as the kids came to our school.

What Should Our School Do about Gangs?

Well, our discussion began with a question, “What should we do to prevent gangs at Eisenhower High School?”

One of the first comments was, “We have to take a strong stand on gang dress. We must ban gang dress at Eisenhower!”

I found myself agreeing with that statement, initially, because I didn’t much like gang dress and thus I was opposed to allowing it at the school.
Then, my eyes were opened by the next statement from one of our fine counseling staff who said, “Well, if we are going to be fair and equitable about gang dress we must own up to the fact that one of the most violent gangs in Yakima are the Cowboys! If we outlaw saggy-baggy, kahki, Dikie pants and certain colors of t-shirts as gang dress then we better outlaw cowboy boots, Wrangler jeans, big belts with big silver buckles, vests and cowboy hats!”

(Again, a little explanation is necessary here. A common activity on Friday and Saturday nights in the area surrounding Yakima was for groups of kids known as the Cowboys to get together in groups in pickup trucks, arm themselves with baseball bats and clubs and go out cruising in the orchards surrounding Yakima. Any time they would come upon lone Mexicans they would stop and beat the lone person, or at least threaten to, in order to steal their money. You see many of the orchard workers are Illegal Aliens and many are paid under the table in cash because of their illegal status. This creates a dangerous circumstance for them in that many have large amounts of cash on their person since they cannot put their money in the banking system and they also cannot complain about being robbed to the Police because it will result in being discovered as being illegally in this country.)

Our Biggest Gang

The “Cowboys” had evolved as a pretty violent group, and in reality, were probably responsible for as much violence as the Drug gangs but were maybe not recognized as being as tightly organized or as dangerous because they wore clothing more acceptable to adults.

Now here I was, sitting in the room with the school employees, and I was listening to this discussion rather differently because I was wearing the gang dress of the cowboys. Almost all of my life I have worn cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans. I wear one of three big cowboy buckles that I own and I wear western shirts. All of a sudden banning gang dress meant something rather different to me.

Suddenly, I really began to empathize with the “gang kids”. I asked myself some interesting questions. “How would I feel if I could not dress like me at school?”

For the first time in my life, I realized, firsthand, what it was like to be told that the way I dress is not acceptable at my school. I would feel like I cannot be me. I realized that I dress with a sense of pride and identification and the kids we are dictating to do also. I realized that much of the way I dress is almost exactly like the way that those kids dress. I wear things that I have picked out because they are like my dad and Buck Minor, two of my heroes. The buckles that I wear all have great significance to me and identify me with my family. The kids are doing the same thing.

Then I thought about a dress code that would deny me from wearing the clothes that I had on and realized that I really did not have other clothes to wear. I would have to go out and get some new clothes. I could imagine that and knew that if I had to I could afford it but realized that was not the case for the kids I taught. Most of them did not come from backgrounds where there was enough money to buy a new set of clothes. If we told them that they could not come to school in the clothes they were wearing most would have to choose between coming to school in their underwear or not coming at all.

All Kids Want To Be Loved

Boy was this experience eye opening to me. It forced me to really think about gangs and what was the real problem with gangs. The problem was not the clothes and changing the clothes would not change the critical behavior of gangs at all. The problem with gangs was the illegal behavior of drugs, violence, coercion, and intimidation that they are involved in. It even occurred to me that a dress code seemed to be using gang tactics ourselves; we were just requiring different clothes!

Then I realized that I was a leader of one of the biggest “gangs” in the school, the football team. We had our “gang dress” that we put on every Friday night. Then we would go to neighboring town to try to whip up on their “gangs.” We even had our dress that we wore to school in the form of t-shirts and letter jackets. On game days we even dictated that every member of our “gang” had to wear their game jersey to school!

Gangs For Excellence

It all of a sudden occurred to me that it might be exciting if we could get those gangs to exist for excellence rather than drugs, violence, coercion, and intimidation. What if we could get gangs to stand for drug free living like our football team? What if there were standards for minimum grades that had to be maintained for the kids to join the gangs?

I would never have been able to understand those kids had I not known the language of love. If I had never experienced compassion, empathy, respect, or love, I would never have understood the motivation for the behavior of many of the kids I taught! Understanding them allowed me to teach many kids that I would never have been able to reach otherwise.

Simply put, we must teach our children the language of love by speaking it to them!

How do we do that? By remembering this: Kids spell "love" T-I-M-E!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for informing the community. An answer so easy, Love and Understanding is so hard for many. Do you know our program here in Yakima... Barrios Unidos? Alex Santillanes is the Dir. We will be contacting you soon. THANK YOU FOR WHAT YOU DO!