Friday, January 23, 2015

Listen to the Sound

Robert was up and out of the house by 5:30 this morning.
He got a J.O.B.

(The quiet is delicious.)

Days after he reached the highest level at the work release center (almost impossible to do,) just one day prior to moving back home, he was laid off from his factory job. He had shown up every day, on time, for nine months. The dude is a hard worker, and in his words, "My supervisor hates me...because it's impossible to hate me!" (I will vouch for this truth.)

Still, as many of you know, stuff happens.

The department of corrections is obviously known for its zany humor, but perhaps the "funniest" part of all is that Work Release, the place they send you when THEY EXPECT YOU TO BE EMPLOYED, made it next to impossible for him to find a new job.

For two weeks, he was ready. But for two weeks, they weren't. He heard every excuse and stupid reason, and sometimes, all he got was the ever-popular, "Because I said so."

On Monday he was finally allowed to leave the house and fill out applications. By Tuesday morning he had an interview with a successful company. And fifteen minutes after arriving for his interview (twenty minutes early - a reminder that we do not share DNA,) he was employed.

Will you ever get tired of me saying how proud I am of him?

We've been talking in the midnight hours about race and racism and whether or not reaching a place of understanding will ever be possible. Robert's take is fascinating. He maintains he's never been mistreated because he's black, and though this attitude might serve him well, I know it isn't true. In the very next breath, he tells me stories that prove the opposite.

Robert is a convicted felon. He grew up in a shattered family mired in urban, American poverty and all of its associated ills. In and out of foster care, suspended and expelled, becoming the "mistake" everyone said he was, he quit school as soon as he was able. Thrown into the juvenile justice system for offenses that would garner other boys a firm talking-to, he was corralled into a system that would eventually funnel him into a state prison. At the age of barely-nineteen.

"African American youth are 4.5 times more likely (and Latino younth 2.3 times more likely) than white youth to be detained for identical offenses." - Burning Down the House 

He got his GED in prison, mostly because his parents forced him. It was the first time I ever got super bossy with him, telling him over the phone something to the effect of, "I'm your mom now, and I don't care if you don't want to or you're nervous. YOU ARE TAKING THAT TEST."

A few months later, we forced him to get his driver's license.

We've seen first-hand the way a sure-of-himself, sometimes-cocky Big Kid can shy away from important things because he's been told, for as long as he can remember, that he shouldn't even bother. Or he's not worth it. Or he wasn't built to succeed.

Both successes have been instrumental in his "moving on" momentum.

We forced the issue, but he did all the work.
He did it, proving his intelligence and courage to himself along the way.
And though he's always been a boot-straps kind of guy, he's more willing to take positive chances now.

The person who hired him just two days ago tacked these words to the offer, "You're so much more soft-spoken and respectful than I thought you'd be when I first saw you."

He told me this with his chest puffed out a bit, as proud of himself as he deserved to be.
But I heard what wasn't said, and honestly, so did he.

"When charges are filed, white teenagers are more likely to be placed on probation, while black youth are more likely to be placed behind bars.

The differential treatment young people of color face from an early age contributes to a particularly insidious cycle. The general public sees only the statistics and the faces on the evening news. The differential treatment that drives the statistics, however, is rarely reported. Without this context, the racism that leads black youth to be so grossly overrepresented in the juvenile justice system serves to fuel the racism they face on the street - the assumption that all of them have their eye on the white lady's purse."Burning Down the House

If I fault his employer, I indict myself. Maybe I haven't voiced the same words, but I have felt their echo in the quiet of my heart, back when race was just another conversational landmine and everything I "knew" had been learned from my TV.

It's not okay. It's not enough. We're all out of excuses, now.

The next time I'm tempted to think I know things about people, I'll assume there's a good chance I'm wrong. I'll take the time to shake that hand before I piece together an entire back-story or stitch up a future I can't possibly see.

The next time I find myself judging the poor or underemployed, the person with no wheels, the high school drop-out, the inmate, the welfare mom, I'll consider the ways my life never came close to mirroring theirs.

My house is quiet but my heart is loud.
It's celebratory.
It's heartsick and mad.

We've got work to do, guys. Our teachers are everywhere, and I happen to have the chattiest, most loveable one living in my basement.

I'm just going to keep passing my lessons along, praying we all have the guts to use them.

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** Photo credit - Cory