Thursday, December 23, 2010

Do-over with Pierre

The husbie is at a meeting with an acquaintance of ours who was shot in the head at a pizza place minutes from our house about a month ago. Eric is expected to make a full recovery, thank God, and as a result, he wants Dick to design some anti-violence posters for an organization called High Impact. I question the efficacy of a poster to stop someone with a gun, but being a supportive wife, and being completely shocked at the rise of violence in our neighborhood the past few years, I helped Dick brainstorm a few ideas, and off he went, designs in tow, to meet Eric at the aforementioned pizza place. Godspeed, Eric. You're a braver man than I.

How does this tie into my wanting a Do-Over you may wonder? Believe it or not, it does.

For over a decade, I volunteered as Youthfriend for Longfellow school, an inner-city school not far from work. Every week, I spent my lunch hour with a kid who made my not-so-perfect childhood look like Disneyland.

I'll never forget my first student, a first grader named Pierre. Pierre's dad was in jail, and his mom was a drug addict who'd left him to be raised by his grandma. Pierre was the sole survivor of a set of twins. His twin brother died at birth. Pierre almost died because he was so sick, and he'd lost all his "electric lights" as he explained to me.

Pierre was a handful. Mind you, I had NO experience with kids. I wasn't even an aunt yet, and I knew nothing about how kids, like dogs, can smell fear. Pierre surmised I had no experience in exercising authority over kids from day one. The me back then would say "Pierre, please don't tip back in your chair, Honey, you might fall and crack your head." The me today would say "Pierre, you know better--all chair legs on the floor NOW before you bust your head wide open." Just one of the things I learned about dealing with kids since then. You have to show them you're the alpha in the relationship.

Pierre was my Youthfriend for four years. He was funny and entertaining, and he could do his school work, if he just had someone to help him concentrate and focus. But students don't have that luxury at Kansas City public schools.

Here's my do-over. One Christmas, Pierre gave me a gift. I unwrapped a box to find a dishtowel and two pot-holders with a basket of little gray kittens on it.

Here's what I did wrong. (Remember, I knew NOTHING about kids at this point.) I let a millisecond too long go by before reacting favorably.

"You don't like it, do you," he said.

"Yes, I do, Pierre. I love it. I really do," I back-pedaled.

But it was too late. The moment had passed. I blew it. Now I realize I should have made a HUGE deal about this gift. I should have gushed immediately and showed more enthusiasm. Pierre and his grandma barely had money for food and clothes for that kid, let alone a gift for his 30-something, white lady friend with a good job.

Geeze. Is there anything worse than disappointment in a little kid's eyes? ESPECIALLY if you're the source.

I think about Pierre quite often. When he was in 5th grade, he used to roll his eyes at his buddies when I came to get him.
I said "Pierre, I can get you a new Youthfriend, if you want. I don't want you to feel like you have to do this." I even talked to the principal.

"Find out if he wants to quit but is afraid to say so because he doesn't want to hurt my feelings. Find out if he'd feel better with a guy, " I asked her.

She called me at work later in the week. "I talked to Pierre's grandma. He likes you, Renée. He talks about you to his Grandma. He even has pictures of you two together thumbtacked to the wall in his room. Stick with him. He needs you. "

And then she went on to say "I'll never forget the first time I read about one of my ex-students getting shot and killed in a crime. I hope Pierre doesn't end up to be one of those boys. He could you know. Hang in there with him. You make a difference."

So I hung in. Did I make a difference? I have no idea. The world is a hard place for a black males, especially when they start out
like Pierre.

I know he made a difference in my life. He taught me to be patient. He taught me what it was like to grow up poor without a mom and dad in a questionable part of town. He taught me what it was like to go to school with a bunch of kids whose teachers spent a lot of time policing their rooms, rather than teaching. And he taught me there are some moments with kids that you can't do over. I just hope the good moments we shared made up for that one where I messed up.

Merry Christmas, Pierre, wherever you are. And I hope it's somewhere good.