Javier Suarez

My eleven-year-old son has the responsibility of watering all of the plants the backyard, in pots on the deck, and in the front. He complains each time, but he does it. Lately, he asks, “Who’s going to watch me in front?” We’ve never let our kids be outside in front of our house by themselves. But these days, my son asks because he’s discovering what it means to be afraid. So I stand on the front steps watching him, correcting the way he waters the plants.

As Chicago residents, we know fear because of gun violence. This year, more than 1,500 people have been shot in our city.

In 2000, my wife and I drove through a shooting in Little Village on the way home from a wedding. We ducked. The shots were aimed at the car in front of us. Besides this experience, my family knows the aftermath of gang violence first hand.

So we didn’t buy a house in Little Village or in Pilsen: we moved Southwest in the city, and so far it’s been quiet around our West Lawn home. But last week, just a few miles away in our zip code, a sixteen-year-old was shot at 8:44am. He was supposed to be in his first period class at 8:15am. I knew who that young man was.

Last night, after running around Midway Airport, I came home to news that a six-year-old—a little girl—was shot in Logan Square. WTF?!

According to the Tribune, “Chicago Police said the home where the girl was wounded was a known gang hangout but the girl appears to not have been the intended target. The girl’s family has not cooperated with Investigators and no arrests have been made.”

So what do I say to my eleven-year-old son about this violence?

I tell him that violence exists. I don’t want my son to grow through his teen years being unaware of the dangers in our city. I’m grateful he’s learning to sense his own sense of fear. He’s growing into young manhood—I want him to listen to his senses, to acknowledge the potential of ugly possibilities. When young men—especially young men of color—grow up thinking they’re untouchable, bad things happen.

While I want him to be conscious of the dangers in our city, I do not want him to live paranoid of his surroundings. I want him to live and play and dream. I want him, also, to think.

In an afterschool video production class, my son made a public service announcement about gun violence. It got to him. My son and I have our deepest conversations when we work together. One day while we were mowing the lawn, he started talking about gangs: how they’re bad, what they do, how they hurt, what they ride in. My son says he doesn’t like big trucks because gangbangers ride in them.

I asked, “Why do you think kids join gangs?”

“Because they think it’s cool to kill and be killed,” he explained.

He knows violence is wrong. This alone is a lesson that’s lost among our youth. In a few years, my son will have a phone. I don’t want him liking and sharing and endorsing violent videos and cruel memes. His sense of fear, I’m hoping, will contribute to his sense of justice. I want him to know what’s wrong.

And I want him to know what’s right. This he’s learning by developing responsibility. So many young men grow up feeling invincible: that’s the bravado of youth. But when this sense of invincibility combines with a lack of responsibility, this is when young men put and keep themselves in danger.

In casual conversations with more and more of my male students, I’m understanding this generation’s struggle with personal values. So many of them—even the undocumented, the insecure, the academically or socially challenged, the ones who have not accepted themselves—are finding value in the material. A new sense of comparative identity makes deep wounds in the self-esteem of so many young men today. They point to what they can tangibly hold when they consider their self-worth.

Today’s teens in my community—the same community I went to high school in—have much more access to weed, liquor, cars, money, guns. I’m not talking about the gangbangers. These are the “good kids.”

These “good kids” get angry at me sometimes for expressing my judgment about their actions or what their parents do. But I snap back, “If you don’t want me to comment on your life, don’t let me know about it.” These angry fellas get over it and keep coming back to hang with me during lunch. And they keep telling me about their lives.

I ask them, “Don’t your parents say anything when you’re high or when you get home late every weekend?”

If my students come in high to class or late a lot, you better believe I say something. And usually their behavior changes. But life at home is different for many of these young men.

One 18-year-old student told me his dad said to him, “I’ve done all I could for you. I’m done.” I told him, “No, he hasn’t. Your dad needs to stop giving you access to unlimited money with that debit card.”

So as a forty-three-year-old father who makes lots of mistakes, all I can do is work to instill in my young son a sense that what he does matters to me, to our family, to everyone who loves him.

As my son gets older, I plan on keeping an eye on him and who he hangs with and how much data he’s using on his phone and when. I also want to teach him how he can share information about dangerous situations with adults he trusts while still protecting himself from backlash.

When my son turns thirteen, I will have had twenty-two years of experience working with teens. I’m trusting this will give me something of an advantage, but we never know with teenagers.

My son, I recognize, is privileged. He lives in a home on a quiet block with two college-educated parents. He has his own bedroom, something I didn’t have until after I graduated from college.

But I am not ignorant of the dangers he will face outside of his protected reality. I’m learning that sometimes the best thing an adult can do is listen to a young person. And ask him questions to show him that what he thinks and wonders and worries about matters.

The unexpected happens. I know. I was mistaken for a gangbanger in my Chevy Caprice when I was twenty-three and chased by a carload of stupid teens. Someone called the cops. They caught them. One of the guys was crying when the cops told him he was going to jail.

A few days ago, after hanging out in our backyard with his twelve-year-old friend from across the street, my son told me, “Did you know [my friend] has a thirteen-year-old friend who joined a gang?”

I listened to the details. I gave my son a hug. “You’ll always be safe. Always,” I told him.

Maybe that’s my inflated sense of invincibility as a man.

Maybe some will think I don’t understand the reality of those saturated in crime. I don’t. And I don’t want to. That’s why I’ve worked as a teacher for the last twenty years to help young people see that there are more options than a violent reality.

That’s the vision I live to instill in my son.

This column was first published on Ray’s blog, The White Rhino (www.chicagonow.com/white-rhino/).

Since 1995, Ray Salazar has been an English teacher in Chicago Public Schools and is a National Board Certified teacher. He started writing The White Rhino about education and Latino issues in 2011. Ray lives on the Southwest Side. Follow him on Twitter @WhiteRhinoRay

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