Years ago I saw a long held question answered right before my very eyes. It occurred while I was a contractor to a major public school system. I was meeting with an elementary school principal in their conference room at the time.
That day, just the two of us were in the room. The entire conference room table was virtually blanketed in full size blue print pages of the school. We had just started what was going to be a very long and detailed meeting when the assistant principal poked his head in the door.
“Little Jamal is refusing to go to class again. What would you like me to do?”
The principal gave a loud sigh and said, “You both know the drill. Send him in.”
A few seconds later the Assistant returned to the conference room with Jamal in tow. He was a good looking little boy, cleanly, but not overly dressed.
Having delivered him to end of the conference room table, the assistant closed the door as he exited. Jamal stood there, staring at the principal as if he were there to pick up a loaf of bread. The blackness of his stare struck me.
Admittedly, I made a trip or two the principal’s office in my time but I’m pretty sure my face showed anything but a blank stare. In fact, I’m pretty sure my eyes never left the floor. For me, eye contact with the principal would have been totally out of the question. Not for Jamal. He looked totally at ease. I remember seeing absolutely no fear or concern. It was as if he was right where he expected to be, right where he was comfortable being. He didn’t make a sound.
In nearly equal silence, the principal stood up, went to a filing cabinet in the corner of the room and opened the top drawer. From it she pulled a rolled up, foam mat like you would use in a yoga class. Next, she went to the second drawer and pulled out a small white pillow. Finally, she went to bottom drawer and pulled out a small maroon blanket. She then quickly spread all of it out on the floor behind the table.
“Assume the position,” She commanded Jamal. “You know the drill. If you don’t want to attend class, you spend your day with me.”
Without hesitation Jamal stepped over to the mat, laid down on his back and pulled the blanket up to his chin like he’d done it a hundred times before.
Yes, I was curious but I knew it was none of my business, so for the moment I didn’t ask. For the better part of three hours the principal and I conducted business as if Jamal wasn’t in the room. And really, he wasn’t.
From my seat I had a clear view of Jamal. He spent the entire time staring at me. I was struck by the total lack of energy or emotion in his eyes. I had seen lots of seven or eight years old boys by that point but Jamal was different. His eyes were cold and lifeless. He had none of the energy or spark that most eight year old kids have. Every time I looked at him I saw haunting darkness. I remember thinking, no child his age should look like this.
When the meeting was over the principal, whom I had known for several years walked me out. I could not resist, I had to ask about Jamal.
“So, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s up with Jamal? Is what I saw today the rule or the exception?”
“It’s the rule I’m afraid. Jamal is a lost cause.” She said, perfectly comfortable with the gravity of her statement about an 8 year old human being.
Long story short, Jamal’s father was in prison on drug trafficking charges. His mother had essentially dumped him at the school’s door. She told the principal that Jamal “was her problem.” She didn’t have the time, the money or the patience to deal with him anymore. She handed off her responsibility like she was handing off a worn out pair of gloves.
The school had spoken to Child protective services but like everyone else in the chain of command, they were helpless. The mother would not give up custody but clearly didn’t want responsibility for him. The school was left to arrange for food, transportation and two hours of after school daycare. The mother couldn’t be at home when the afternoon bus arrived.
Jamal clearly hated his life, his school and his mother. Jamal had just gone into shut down. The system that was suppose to help him had no interest in him beyond making sure he was fed and had a place to stay for the better part of 8 hours a day. Mom washed her hands of him during the day, the system washed its hand of him every evening.
Suddenly it all made sense. There was no life in his eyes because he had no life. There was no excitement because he had nothing to look forward to. There wasn’t even anger in his eyes because he had not yet discovered what all of this was going to cost him. But I had, and it made me physically ill.
At this age, Jamal was already a ward of the system. The system was meeting his essential needs and for now that was good enough. The bed on the conference room floor was probably nicer and warmer than the one he had at home.
Jamal was eerily content right now, soon enough he wouldn’t be. He was doomed to eventually learn that the other kids had more. They had things he would soon want, things they had earned. When that day came, it wouldn’t be much of leap from contentment to frustration, and then to anger. He would eventually figure out that if he wanted the things other kids had, he’d have to take them. He would lack the ability and the tools to secure them the way those who had sat in class, done the homework and made the grades had. Jamal was a street thug under construction.
“Where do these violent street thugs come from?” I left the school with the answer. The very system designed to protect kids like Jamal, was creating them. Jamal was effectively being sentenced to societal death. Death in terms of ever realizing his dreams, being productive to society or self sufficient. For want of not wishing to hurt his feelings or violate his civil rights, the system was facilitating his existence, but nothing more. The system expected nothing of him and was getting nothing in return. The system made Jamal immune to punishment for not going to class by declaring him a “Special ed” challenge. In affording him that protection, they both doomed him to failure and sanctioned failure at the same time.
Years later I happened to see a You Tube video interview of a young, Afro-American, inmate. He was awaiting execution for a two brutal murders. The only time during the entire interview that the man raised his eyes and looked at the interviewer was when she asked him why he wasn’t pursuing a stay of execution. With the same dead eyes I’d seen behind the face of an eight year old boy years before, the man said, “Why should I? I got nothin to live for.”
I remember wondering if the young man’s name might not have been Jamal? I also remember feeling sick all over again because I knew how he probably came to feel that way. More likely than not, he wasn’t a freak of nature, he was the product of a culture so intent on protecting him from himself, that it produced a violent monster. A violent monster who now wanted nothing more than to be spared from the torture of his own failed life.
How many more Jamal’s will we create before we rethink political correctness and start demanding that failure not be an acceptable option for our youth? It isn’t a spending problem, its a cultural problem. These violent monsters are not born nearly as often as we create them.