I finally finished a book called Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. I don’t recommend it. It chronicles the lives of upwards of 20 people for 10 years in the Bronx in the 80’s. Drugs. Jail. Homelessness. Teenage pregnancy. Truancy. Addiction. Despair. I know what you’re saying. Sounds like my kind of book, right? Normally, yes. Something about this one bogged me down. There was little hope. Just a recitation of events that happened. And then happened again.
I judge a book by how often I use my highlighter and with this book, it was a rarity. But then I highlighted nearly all of page 374.
“Hector, still smarting from his year in prison, believed that fear was the best teacher; how else would respect get instilled in his hardheaded niece?
But Mercedes had already had more than enough hardship and fear and humiliation for several lifetimes – nights in unsafe buildings; cold waits on the hard benches of homeless shelters, police stations, courtrooms, and welfare offices; she’d been uprooted eight times in eight years. Her mother struggled every single day of her life. Her father was in prison. Terrifying seizures plagued her little sister. Drugs rendered the adults she loved incoherent; her godfather was permanently paralyzed. Sadness threatened to engulf every corner if her anger couldn’t keep it at bay. She’d witnessed countless acts of violence involving parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends, strangers, police. Raised in poverty, Mercedes had weathered innumerable sudden crisis, but perhaps even more insidious was that fact that – despite them – little changed. Fear organized whole seasons of Mercedes’ experience and she was probably still frightened; she just didn’t show it anymore.”
Oh man. Where to start. I beg you to understand that this is what the vast majority of our kids have experienced. (As well as so many kids in our country.) Maybe this book was so hard for me because I’d read about the twin infants screaming in a playpen in the smoke filled living room with their grandma and the most recent boyfriend ignoring their desperation in order to get high while my little Leo slept snugly in his room and all I wanted to do was scoop him up, hug him to me and protect him from ever feeling that much need. And maybe if I could hug Leo just a little tighter, it could somehow bleed through to all of these children whose norm is fear and chaos. Deep breath. Getting a little emotional here.
“Sadness threatened to engulf every corner if her anger couldn’t keep it at bay.”
Yes. This. That super duper angry kid? Masking an ocean of sadness. Sadness that he does not deserve and that no amount of emphasis on responsibility for his personal choices could justify. Many of our kids have this anger. This anger that leads to throwing food at Jilli, that leads to ripping a test while holding it as close as possible to a teacher’s face. This anger comes from years and years of instability, fear and confusion.
“She was probably still frightened; she just didn’t show it anymore.”
Mercedes? She’s eleven when the author wrote this. Eleven years old and has already learned to mask her fear to protect herself from the world. She lived in fear because the adults in her life didn’t protect her. She was lied to on a regular basis. (Those lies that are told because the adult just can’t face the truth. So they lie, because she’s a child. She won’t remember. And she may forget the particulars. But she doesn’t forget the uncertainty. The dread that wells up when she is told something hopeful, but she knows that she’s been here before. And the crush of reality is becoming too much to bear.) She lived in an environment where fights became loud and violent.
This fear and anger is a defense mechanism but it’s like building a bomb shelter around yourself while simultaneously torching the land around you. You may be safe while the fire rages, but how exactly do you survive once the fire has ceased and you forgot to build yourself a door?
It’s easy to judge the adults in her life and many will say that Mercedes has seen the consequences of dropping out of school, of getting pregnant, of drugs therefore it’s her own fault if she falls into the same pattern. But when this is your world, it’s really hard to see another reality.
Manuel is the child (now young man!) that I have poured the most into. As he was getting close to leaving Proniño we had many conversations about what his life could be. Our conversations consistently circled back to him telling me I’m a naive gringa who has no idea what the real world is like. Everyone takes advantage of everyone else. Love does not last. Parents don’t stay together. It’s not possible to have a steady job. Twelve years after leaving an infancy and childhood I suspect was much like Mercedes’ and he was still wearing the lenses made for him by fear and anger when looking at the world.
And this is why relationship, and specifically the walking alongside kind, is so important. My world has been filled to bursting with positive experiences, with people I can trust, with love. So the few times something really terrible has happened or I’ve been betrayed I can easily chock it up to a one off. I am insulated by all the good that has rained down on me. The opposite is true for the kids that we love. There has been so much emptiness, abandonment, fear and want that when something good happens…it’s not real. They are insulated by the need to be ever vigilant, never trusting, always looking for an escape.
This is the mountain that they must climb to reach the amount of success that I never once doubted that I could achieve. And very few can do it alone because very few have the ability to believe in the existence of something that they have never seen or felt for themselves. I often think of myself as a genie on their shoulders. (Now I’m thinking of Emperor’s New Groove.) Hanging out, along for the ride and whispering in their ears. Reminding them that all these things, this better life, this safety, this sense of belonging, it so very real. And they are so deserving of feeling it for themselves.