- Chicago, Illinois - I recently sat down with two rather exceptional young men who are currently attending a Charter high school on Chicago's South Side. No formal interview was conducted so I've chosen to keep their identities private, but their story is so compelling I feel it needs to be told. It is one thing to see images of violence in poverty-stricken neighborhoods on television or read about it in the newspaper, but to hear the horrors experienced first hand by teenagers is a different experience entirely. For those of you who are unaware, the South Side of Chicago is one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. Not even a year ago, the city considered bringing in the National Guard to try to restore order in the area that can see upwards of 20 shootings in a single night.
The area was significantly different in the 1960s. The transition made on the South Side of Chicago was the definition of white flight. Due to the segregation and very high racial tensions, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led marches through the South Side to promote open housing (or "fair housing") in 1965-66. Throughout his campaign, the non-violent protesters were harassed constantly and Dr. King was even hit in the face by a thrown brick. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 including title VIII (a.k.a. the Fair Housing Act), housing became available to everyone in previously all-white neighborhoods. This quickly led to redlining and steering by real estate agents as well as more underhanded tactics such as encouraging white flight. They would go so far as to walk door-to-door scaring current residents into selling their homes with racially charged stories and threats of plummeting property values. That coupled with newly constructed public/low income housing projects that more severely segregated the city by grouping thousands of people into substandard living caused the city to begin withdrawing resources.
In redlined areas, it became impossible to get insurance or loans to start businesses. African-Americans would go into real estate offices and be told nothing was available, and a white person could walk in minutes later and the books would open and they would be asked where they would like to live because there were multiple availabilities. This and many other factors contributed to the deterioration of the neighborhoods and the current state of the area. With this in mind, my conversation with these students left me with an overwhelming sense of compassion for their situation and respect for their determination to succeed.
Think back to high school; it can be as stressful, awkward and difficult a time as any, but for these young men (and I say "young men" in as serious a way possible because these high schoolers are by no means kids), the experiences are compounded by outside influences most of us would never dream of having to overcome. We started off talking about the usual things that interest guys their age like sports, video games and well...sports-themed video games. When we moved to the subject of their home and school life, it quickly became apparent these were not your "usual" teenage high school students.
The extreme environment they live in has contributed to their level of sophistication, and yet forces them to deal with extraordinary circumstances on a daily basis just to survive. There were two stories they told that especially stood out, both for their content, as well as the surprisingly candid yet relaxed manner in which they were told. One was about the most recent time one of the students was robbed. While walking home from school, he was approached by a fellow classmate who brandished a knife, threatened him, and stole his wallet. They weren't in a back ally or dimly lit hallway, but out in public without regard for possible repercussions even though the two see each other on a daily basis. Imagine being forced to look over your shoulder in fear constantly no matter the time or place, and at the same time not exactly sure of what (or whom) to be fearful. The student told me that a few weeks later, he approached his attacker at school to try and get an idea of why this happened. He said he wasn't scared, or even angry, but just needed to know. Was there some underlying need for the cash? Perhaps an unknown life or death circumstance that could have possibly warranted the confrontation? The answer was, of course, "no." The money stolen was used to buy weed and a pair of gym shoes. This young man's life was put in jeopardy so his criminal-classmate could party for a night, and it was quite obvious that no one cared. In the area they live, these events are simply chalked up as an inevitability of the surroundings and something to learn from for the future.
Due to the reputation of the area, the school itself is patrolled by local law enforcement, but the students were quick to point out that no one is going to rob you in front of the school; half a block away is a totally different story. In areas like theirs crime and violence is just a way of life. Something as simple as which route to take while walking to school, for them, could be a fatal decision. They explained how they felt "lucky" because they were on good terms with the gang members who controlled city-blocks around the school. Aside from the one instance, they said they generally feel okay walking home, but still must keep an eye out just in case. Other students are not as lucky and, walk nearly a mile out of their way daily to avoid certain gang-controlled street corners.
The second story was actually the inspiration for this article. One day on his way home from school, one of these students was stopped by a rival gang and explicitly told that they were going to kill him. Not rob him, jump him, or beat him up, but actually end his life. Why? Because his home just happened to be on a block that is controlled by a different gang. It didn't matter that he was unaffiliated with any gang. Now he lives with the fear of being murdered for no reason; the feeling is unimaginable. I can honestly say I have never truly been afraid for my life. That's not to say my life has never been in danger, but because of either the unexpectedness of the moment or pumping adrenaline (possibly even a few too many adult beverages), the life-threatening potential wasn't realized until after the fact. A mishap in rugby practice that nearly snapped my neck is one such instance that comes to mind. But at 16-years old, these students not only have to deal with the normal stressors of school, but they are doing so in constant real fear for their lives.
It is impossible for me to relate; at my high school, the third floor hallway was avoided because it became so flooded with students during passing periods that maneuvering through the crowd would undoubtedly lead to tardiness. At their high school, the third floor is avoided because it's over-run with gang members. To them, it is life, and the only escape is to graduate and go off to college as far away as possible. They've obviously understood that mantra for some time now, and it has kept them in school, out of gangs, away from drugs and on a path towards success. The nonchalant manner in which they explained it all exemplifies a seldom seen level of maturity and understanding that deserves commendation.