When Robert was 10 years old and walking to school in a snowstorm, a guy shoved a gun in his face and, as Robert wrote, stole his coat, hat, and shoes. Whoever had guns had all the power, Robert said, “and the GI Joe I played with, had a [big] gun, too.” Robert’s first offense was for illegal possession of a firearm, and so was his second.
My students carried guns, but they also know that guns bring nothing to their life that is good. The day Harvey tried writing a poem about how it felt to be shot, the class spoke over each other to help him get it right, and I found out that just about every other man in the room had been shot, too.
In my student Tali’s short story, a bodega owner didn’t send off his customers with a “Have a good day,” but said, instead, “Be careful out there.”
And Mike, running through nearby Charlestown, armed with a 2X4 to do battle against a gang he didn’t know and had nothing against, compared the sound of his and his friends’ feet to the march of an infantry.
“It was either him or me” was how Basil ended a poem describing a shoot-out.
I’ve never been in a war zone, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare one to the streets where my students live when they aren't behind bars. And like many veterans, my students, too, are physically and mentally scarred: like Mike, after that Charlestown brawl, when he discovered at the age of 13 that he was capable of beating someone nearly to death. Like Harvey, who tried and was unable emotionally, to write about getting shot. All of them, out on the street expect to be ambushed, and are traumatized from witnessing the sudden and violent deaths of friends, siblings, and cousins. My students also lose loved ones to suicide, and some attempt it themselves.