A Day in the Hood: A Teacher and His Student

Westside, Chicago, IL

Let me start off by saying that I am not the hero. I’m not here to save anyone, as that job is best left to people like Jesus, and the police. I’m simply reflecting, journaling even, about a normal day in my life, and allowing for others to peer in. I live in Chicago, on the Westside of the city, in the hood. I teach here. And everything about my life is centered around serving and loving the beautiful children and families who also live here. This was my Sunday…

I wake up to a text message this morning which instructs me to get Ja’vion from his grandma’s house, not his. Slight change of plans, but it’s not too inconvenient for me. I’m mostly happy that Mom agreed to let me chill with him, as I’ve been requesting the chance to a lot lately. Sometimes I wonder if my students’ parents ever get annoyed by my persistence? I can imagine them thinking, “Dang, we know you love our kid, but chill out.” Ha. I plug the new address into Google Maps, and it tells me that Grandma lives 9 minutes away. Bet. That’s not bad at all.

Today I’ll be taking Ja’vion to church with me. During the school year, him and I had talked a bit about religious things, so I didn’t think inviting him to God’s house would be too much of an ask. Besides, a lot of my kids would consider themselves to be religious, Christian even. Whether by force, fear, or genuine faith, many kids in the hood believe in God and have no issue talking about Him. As an educator, I know they say you’re not supposed to speak much on religion in schools (separation of church and state, or whatever), but it’s just a natural thing to do where I’m at; a thing everybody and they mama is cool with.

Ja’vion’s grandma stays on a very narrow one-way street. On each side, cars are carefully parked inches away from one another, and in the middle of the street, you’re forced to roll over several, consecutively placed speed bumps. As an offensive-driver, I’m not too much a fan of these speed bumps, but I get why they’re there: to keep kids safe.

On this block, I see a basketball hoop with a broken backboard and a tattered net. This is common. In Chicago, there are very few driveways, spacious backyards are hard to come by, and what is this “front yard” thing you people in other cities speak of? Basically, the street is the only place where kids can set up a hoop to play ball. You shoot a few shots, wait for a couple cars to pass by, then get back to playin’ with your boys.

As I leisurely cruise down Grandma’s block looking for the right address, neighbors stare into my car as if I’m that no-good friend who owes them money. That’s how it is out here, but you learn not to take it personally. The reality is, I’ve never met any of these people before, and they’ve never seen me either, so their suspicious looks, no matter how uncomfortable they make visitors feel, are warranted.

Even though it’s 10AM on a Sunday morning, I “shouldn’t” be rolling in a car this slow, down a street I’ve never been on, in a neighborhood that’s unfamiliar with me. History reminds these residents that this is a concoction for bad news (drug deals, drive-by shootings, etc.). But thankfully, I’m not here for any of that. Just your friendly neighborhood teacher, here to pick-up his student.

I finally pull up to the right house and honk the horn a few times. No luck. I’d hoped Ja’vion would have been looking out of the window, waiting for me, but he wasn’t. I bet he was probably upstairs playing with his phone or watching videos on YouTube. Yeah, he’s definitely on YouTube. Unfortunately, I don’t have his number, or his grandma’s, so I have do the old-fashioned task of actually getting out of the car and ringing the doorbell. (Ugh. So ‘90s). I ring the bell a few times but still get no response, all the while, I can feel the neighbors’ eyes tracking my every move.

“Where is this boy?”, I think to myself, as the last few reverberations of sound from the doorbell disappear back into the house. Tired of waiting in this scorching Chicago heat, I text Mom and ask her to please tell Grandma that I’m at her door… and eureka! Within seconds, Ja’vion walks out of the house rocking his dreadlocks, and bearing a bright smile that could easily compete with the summer sun.

“What’s good, J?” I shoot over to him.

“What’s up, Mr. Reed,” he replies, nonchalantly.

As we head to the car, Ja’vion sheepishly tries to push me away when I come in for a hug, but by then it’s too late. I don’t care if he thinks he’s too old for hugs, or, if he’s trying to play tough in front of his neighbors. I haven’t seen this kid since school ended a few weeks ago, and I want him to know that I’ve missed him!

“Boy, stop acting funny and show me some love,” I say.

He yields, and still wearing the huge smile from before, returns my hug.

“Why did it take you so long to come outside?” I ask, as we open the car doors.

“Oh, I was upstairs on my phone, watching YouTube videos, so I ain’t hear the doorbell,” he answered.

YouTube! I knew it!

As J fastens his seatbelt, I roll the windows down in the car and start towards the church. He mentions that he’s happy I don’t have leather seats or else our butts would be burning in this heat. Perhaps this is just a passing comment? Nah, I think it’s his way of suggesting I turn the AC on. Hmm. Kids have a funny way of asking for things sometimes. I oblige his indirect request, and we make our way down Grandma’s street.

Just a few blocks up, we are overcome by a very familiar smell: weed. The car in front of us on this one-way, stops in the middle of the street, so, unable to move, we sit and watch. Someone in the car is purchasing drugs, and they don’t seem to care about being conspicuous.

I do nothing to distract Ja’vion from the events unfolding in front us. Why should I? My assumption is that he’s probably seen this happen more times than he’d like to remember. It probably doesn’t even phase him any longer. Besides, who I am try and hide the reality of his neighborhood from him? That’s not my place.

After the driver ahead of us realizes there’s a car behind him, he graciously pulls off to the side to let us go by, then, continues with his business. “Thanks,” I say, sarcastically in my head.

As a Black man, and an educator, I’m wrestling with a number of thoughts at this moment: I’m angry, yet somewhat empathetic, and drawn toward understanding. I’m embarrassed, but at the same time, hopeful that the 12-year-old sitting beside me will see the wrong, know that it’s wrong, and choose right. But for me, “right” and “wrong” become a little gray when it comes to “green.” Let me explain…

In all honesty, I understand why some people sell drugs, particularly those in the hood. Many find themselves with very few economic opportunities, or, with a lack of knowledge about the ones within reach. So, as humans, they naturally gravitate towards what they see as the easiest option, which in this case, also happens to the illegal one.

I personally don’t think it’s right, but at the same time, I don’t exactly think it’s wrong, per se; it’s complicated. When White dudes in Colorado can legally sell marijuana and make bank, while Black boys in Chicago get locked up for doing the exact same thing, it blurs what I think of as “right” and “wrong” in this situation.

[I have many more thoughts on this: free all the people in jail for marijuana, end the War-on-Drugs which contributes to the school-to-prison-pipeline, etc.].

Ja’vion and I zoom past the “pot” holes in front of us and carry on toward the house of worship. Hopefully a few gospel songs or a word from the Good Book will get this day back on track, because as of now, I’m a little bothered. A few seconds of silence go by as I contemplate whether or not to address what we just witnessed. “Man… bump it,” I say to myself, then come straight out with it:

“Yo, I would be so mad if I ever found out you were smoking or selling dope.” I don’t pretend to believe that my over-protective, father-like rant will save the boy, or guarantee that he stays on a straight path, but I continue anyway.

You’re way too smart and talented for that, and why would you even run the risk of getting locked up for…?” I catch J staring at a scar on his hands as I shift my eyes back and forth between him and the road. “…for such little cash. And don’t get me started on when you’d encounter the po — -”

Apparently he’s had enough and cuts me off mid-sentence. “Mr. Reed, chill… I ain’t even on that!” That big smile he once wore has turned into half of one, indicating that doesn’t really want to have this conversation right now. I can understand.

“Besides, I’m trynna get a real job,” he continues.

“Oh word?” I question.

“Yeah!” he replies.

“Bro, you’re 12 years old. How you gon’ get a real job now?” I laughingly ask.

“Iunno, but I’ma find something,” he asserts.

At this moment, that hope emotion I was feeling before instantly revived! The boy wants to work! Not that this is an oddity to me, as I’m surrounded by the WORKING-poor — people who do what they’ve got to do to take care of their own — it’s just encouraging to hear things like this from a child.

Despite the options of quick money, power, and respect that lie before him, Ja’vion wants to do things the right way. I’m both optimistic and proud. He knows what to do, and he’s got a plan to do it.

My student is his own hero…

This concludes Part I of “A Day in the Hood: A Teacher and His Student”

  1. All names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
  2. I am not the hero of this story.