I've had to deal in person with a very wide variety of rebellious teenagers. They've ranged from young gangs in South Africa's townships, politicized as well as criminalized to the point where they'd kidnap, torture and murder without compunction (witness, for example, the misdeeds of Winnie Mandela's so-called 'Mandela United Football Club'), through the teenage (and sometimes even pre-teenage) child 'soldiers' of the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone, through inner-city gangs in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and other US cities.
I've tried to assist some of the latter in adult jails after they grew up. Many of them bitterly resented the fact that up to the age of eighteen or thereabouts, they could commit almost any crime and get away with a slap on the wrist; but the instant they were charged with the identical crime as an adult, they were hit with a multi-year jail sentence. They regarded that as immensely unfair - and frankly, I couldn't blame them. They should have been hit with a custodial sentence much earlier in life, when they might have learned something from it. Because they weren't, many (perhaps most) of them were no longer capable of learning at all. They'd grown too set in their ways.
That's why, when I read a report about Ed Boland's attempt to help inner-city kids in a New York school, and the book he's written about his experiences, I felt a wave of near-despair wash over me.
The New York Post reports:
In 2008, Ed Boland, a well-off New Yorker who had spent 20 years as an executive at a nonprofit, had a midlife epiphany: He should leave his white-glove world, the galas at the Waldorf and drinks at the Yale Club, and go work with the city’s neediest children.
“The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School” (Grand Central Publishing) is Boland’s memoir of his brief, harrowing tenure as a public school teacher, and it’s riveting.
There’s nothing dry or academic here. It’s tragedy and farce, an economic and societal indictment of a system that seems broken beyond repair.
The book is certain to be controversial. There’s something dilettante-ish, if not cynical, about a well-off, middle-aged white man stepping ever so briefly into this maelstrom of poverty, abuse, homelessness and violence and emerging with a book deal.
What Boland has to share, however, makes his motives irrelevant.
Names and identifying details have been changed, but the school Boland calls Union Street is, according to clues and public records, the Henry Street School of International Studies on the Lower East Side.
Boland opens the book with a typical morning in freshman history class.
A teenage girl named Chantay sits on top of her desk, thong peeking out of her pants, leading a ringside gossip session. Work sheets have been distributed and ignored.
“Chantay, sit in your seat and get to work — now!” Boland says.
A calculator goes flying across the room, smashing into the blackboard. Two boys begin physically fighting over a computer. Two girls share an iPod, singing along. Another girl is immersed in a book called “Thug Life 2.”
Chantay is the one who aggravates Boland the most. If he can get control of her, he thinks, he can get control of the class.
“Chantay,” he says, louder, “sit down immediately, or there will be serious consequences.”
The classroom freezes. Then, as Boland writes, “she laughed and cocked her head up at the ceiling. Then she slid her hand down the outside of her jeans to her upper thigh, formed a long cylinder between her thumb and forefinger, and shook it . . . She looked me right in the eye and screamed, ‘SUCK MY F–KIN’ D–K, MISTER.’ ”
It was Boland’s first week.
There's much more at the link, depressingly so.
I confess that I have no answers to the questions Mr. Boland raises, except for one - and it's not a politically correct one. I can think of only one way to salvage these 'lost kids' - and that's to be tougher on them than they've ever experienced before. They don't understand or respect common human decency at all. They've never encountered it. The only thing they respect is the ability of stronger people to make them suffer if they get out of line. Very well; if that's all they respect, then let's use that to help them change. If they won't learn the easy way, let them learn the hard way. Give them an even tougher inner-city equivalent to the US Marine Corps' Boot Camp, and keep on giving it to them until at least some of them learn better. They, at least, will grow up to be more worthwhile as human beings than they would have been without it; and society as a whole will be the better for it. Those who won't or can't learn better . . . well, they were probably a lost cause by then, anyway.
Harsh? Certainly. Ruthless? You bet. However, if you don't like it, then give me another method that will work for the hundreds of thousands of these 'lost kids' who infest our urban ghettos. So far, no-one's come up with one. Don't tell me I'm being cruel, or heartless, or despicable, when inaction is merely perpetuating the problem and dragging other kids down into the same morass of hopelessness. I've seen this too often, in too many countries, and from far too close a range to be in any doubt about it. The reason many kids grow up to be adult monsters is that no-one deals with them when they're still little monsters, and able to learn better. Mr. Boland tried to do it the nice way. You can read for yourself how far it got him.
In Africa, I saw many people trying to help kids like these. Some tried the nice way. They didn't get very far. Others used tougher methods, and had greater success, as far as I could see. Basically, the kids had to hit rock bottom and realize that it was literally a case of 'change or die' before they'd exert themselves to improve. Many of them didn't. Most of the latter died, either through the violence of their own kind, or because they chose their next victim poorly and learned - too late - that weapons can defend the righteous as well as threaten them.
Those kids in Africa were - and still are - the result of what happens when a broken society like that Mr. Boland describes is taken to its logical conclusion. There's a documentary called 'Cry Freetown', which examined the civil war in Sierra Leone and the conduct of the child 'soldiers' there. You'll find the trailer here, but I urge you not to watch it unless you have a strong stomach. Right from the start, even in the trailer, you'll see murder being done. If you want to see what children such as those in New York can and do grow up to be, get hold of the full documentary and watch it for yourself. If you can't find it, a more sanitized, less brutal documentary is 'Sierra Leone's Cocaine-Drugged Child Soldiers'. It sounds unbelievable, but it's real.
When you've learned enough from those documentaries, look at the crime figures for New York, and Chicago, and other big US cities with large numbers of young people such as those Mr. Boland describes. Where do you think the thugs and gang-bangers and murderers in those inner cities are coming from? Right out of schools like his, and families such as he describes - that's where. They're behaving in almost exactly the same way as the child 'soldiers' of Sierra Leone. That's not an exaggeration. That's the truth.
I think Mr. Boland's book is a very important one. It will open people's eyes to the reality of far too many of our inner cities. Whether or not we do anything about it is up to us. If we leave it to the politically correct . . . nothing will ever get done.