Even though winter seems to be trying to hang on with significant snowfall throughout the mid-west, in Maine we have bare ground, sunny skies, and mild temperatures. On many of the ponds and lakes, ice is out, almost three weeks earlier than what would be expected in a normal season. More than likely, winter this year will be remembered here as the winter that wasn’t. Our only significant snow was a half-foot that fell during the third week of December. It didn’t last long with the rain that fell a few days later. Actually, about the only place in Maine that had winter was northern Aroostook County. Almost everywhere else had very little snow and the convenience stores, restaurants, and hotels that depend on snowmobilers and cross-country skiing enthusiasts suffered multi-million dollar losses.
This past week has afforded some of the driest weather we’ve had so far. Though still below freezing at night, the day temperatures have been in the mid-forties. The drive to work in the morning on Highway 1 is now in full light of the sun as it glistens on the water of Penobscot Bay. Most days at work I categorized as either good, or not so good. Good, in that the kids had little difficulty with being in class and managed not being asked to take a time out by the teacher. At the residential home where I work, kids first have school on site, and depending on individual circumstances, may eventually be allowed to take a regular class at the high school. Very seldom, though, do we have any kids who are able to attend high school full-time.
Today I had to go to the high school to pick up a student and an ed-tech, who had been assigned to him, and drive them to Rockland for his GED preparation class. As I stood in the hallway outside the library to wait for them, I watched the students pass to their classes after the bell rang, and became amused by a simple observation. Like most of our kids back at the house, many of the kids that went by me were dressed in similar fashion. With sagged pants, shirts two sizes too big, and hats worn sideways, it seems hip-hop has become far more influential than I had even imagined.
Not that there’s anything wrong with hip-hop, at least no more so than rock and roll was to my generation. But with hip-hop there seems to be an undercurrent that goes beyond simply challenging the status quo, an undercurrent perhaps far more insidious and pervasive than the gang culture depicted in West Side Story, which almost seems tame compared to what is shown and heard on much of MTV today. Want to know what your kids are tuning into? Just watch. Or better yet, listen to a couple of tracks by G-Unit or the Black Eyed Peas. Pimps, Thugs, Bitches, and a lot of f-this and f-that in-between. Oh, yeah. I be talkin’ now.
While I stood there reflecting on this, I noticed a young lady, about 5’4, in a pink sweatshirt, as she ran down the hallway. Suddenly, as if zeroing in on a target, she leapt about ten feet forward, planting both her hands on the back shoulders of a girl in front of her and knocked her flat to the floor. “Don’t you ever talk shit about me behind my back again, you bitch.”
She then turned and walked away. The girl who was pushed down to the floor gathered up her papers and books and stood up. She looked stunned and uncertain as to what to do next. What I found more upsetting about the incident, though, is that none of the other students offered to help her. I noticed a couple of teachers on the other side of the hallway, oblivious to what had just happened. I walked over to them. “Did either of you see what just happened?” I asked.
“Oh, the girl that tripped,” one of the teachers responded.
“Tripped? She was shoved to the floor by that girl,” I said, pointing to the young lady who was now down the other end of the hallway.
“You actually saw that she was pushed?” the other teacher asked.
I was perturbed by his response. “It wouldn’t be too much to ask if one of you went and brought that girl to the office, would it?”
Finally, one decided to go and get the girl and the other left to inform the principal. After the girl had been brought to the office, the principal approached me and asked if I would be willing to write a signed statement, which I did, as to what I saw.
After I had signed my statement, I left with the student and ed tech I had come to pick up. As we were walking out to the van, the student asked why I had to be such a snitch. “Snitch?” I asked.
“Yeah, besides it wasn’t your business,” he said. “You’re supposed to leave it as it is.”
“I’m not sure if I follow you,” I said.
“It’s simple. Someone talks trash about you, you lay da smack down on ‘em.”
“Just like that, huh.”
“Oh yeah, got to keep it real with your homies . . . keep your respect.”
“So, you just give into your emotions, regardless of the consequences. Is that it?” I asked.
“That’s it,” he said.
I didn’t continue further with the discussion. I was still upset by what I had witnessed and found it difficult to concentrate on anything else, let alone a discussion with a kid who thinks smacking other people is a perfectly acceptable way to command respect from your “homies.” Besides, there would be plenty of other opportunities to work that topic in with the discussion group my colleague and I conduct each week with him and the other students.
Later that day as I drove back home under a robin’s-egg blue sky that signified warm spring days ahead, I found myself experiencing a sense of disassociation. I rolled my window down a couple of inches: the cool air, fresh and inviting. In my youth I never felt separate from my home, family, friends, school, or the community I lived in. Whether white-collar, blue-collar or otherwise, it was if the neighborhoods we lived in existed as mosaics that consolidated a comfortable sense of purpose and belonging.
Even with those of us who chose to have moments of rebelliousness, the community was able to absorb our challenge to the status quo without any lasting consequences. We put away our bell bottoms, beads, and peace buttons, cut our hair, and moved on to pursue bigger and better dreams.
For most young people today, hip-hop is where it’s at. And for most, like those of us who were caught up in the craze of rock and roll, they, too, will eventually move past it. They’ll go on to college, work or the service. Those are the kids I don’t worry about. Our communities are still strong enough to accommodate another generation’s rite of passage without necessarily sacrificing the values that have allowed people over a period of decades to thrive and succeed.
It’s the kids I work with that worry me. Too many of our young people are in trouble today. As to why, though, ends up being a question that gives itself to a lot of rough generalizations rather than any specific answers. Both parents work. Sometimes they lose jobs or can’t hold jobs. Sometimes jobs just disappear. Parents can’t agree on what kind of expectations or limits they should set for their children. The father drinks while the mother is subjected to his continual abuse. And so it goes.
Regardless of whatever the reasons may be, one thing is certain: in an environment of uncertainty, children become anxious and confused. They begin to feel pushed away, unwanted, and left to themselves. Without a clear sense of purpose and belonging, it isn’t long before they seek out and join with others who also feel left out. With its tribalistic style of dress, music, mannerisms and code of ethics that espouses and glorifies drug dealing, pimping woman, and drive-by shootings — that says easy status can be gained by beating the crap out of somebody, or even shooting somebody — it isn’t surprising that these kids have bought into the Gangsta culture that has proliferated across America. “Hey, Homey G, welcome to da house.”