Saturday, September 11, 2010

When You're a Jet

     The closest I've ever come to gang violence is when my high school did a production of West Side Story when I was in 8th grade.  It was great!  Of course, all the girls will tell you that the senior who played Tony was just dreamy.  We were busier contemplating Tony's stunning cheekbones than the effects of gang violence.  In fact, I'm not sure there was ever even discussion of gang related crime after the show.  You can be sure that our teachers talked about how West Side Story relates to Romeo and Juliet, but we never really talked about what it meant to be a Shark or a Jet.  We never talked about how one killing leads to three more in the course of the two hour play.  We never talked about how gangs can take the place of families when families are broken.
When you're a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You're a family man!
It all went right over our heads because we didn't know what gangs were.  Not that I'm criticising my teachers - why should we have known what gangs were, growing up in a pretty peaceful suburb of a small-ish city?
     Two days ago I was teaching a lesson on poetry to some 7th graders.  As part of the lesson, I asked the students to write about their hometowns or countries (a lot of my students are from Mexico or El Salvador).  At the end of class I asked if anyone wanted to share.  One particularly overzealous student raised his hand and nearly jumped out of his seat.  He came to the front of the class and read his work.  "If you're not from Pacoima, you don't know murder.  People steal stuff here.... Brothers get shot... Don't ever come to Pacoima."  Nervously, I thanked him for sharing. 
     According to the LAPD, there are over 250 active gangs in Los Angeles.  It's a tragic reality in this city.  In the neighborhood of my school alone there are three well-known gangs.  The students in my afterschool program can't go home at the end of the day for fear of getting into trouble on the streets.  Their parents would rather keep them on the fenced-in grounds of the school for as long as possible.  I learned this last week when I met with the principal for the first time, but it was another thing entirely to hear a 7th grader talk about murder and robbery as an everyday occurrence.  He's 12 years old. 

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