4 Boys, Statistics, Prison, Change, and Poetry

The four black boys sitting around the Dell weren’t different than any other boys. All around 10 or 11, the same height, outfitted in uniform blues, and each colored a different but beautiful shade of brown. Shirt-tales out, shoes untied, they looked around to see if anyone was watching as each one took turns at the key board. I took a quick glance at the screen and heard one say, “That’s my dad right there.”

Then it hit me- they were looking up their fathers on Michigan’s offender search website.

You know statistics are weird. Most times they’re just numbers you never see until you actually SEE them and you think, “Damn.” We always hear “numbers” of how bad cigarettes are for you but the numbers don’t mean much until we see someone dying of lung cancer carrying an oxygen tank.

That’s how I felt watching those boys. I had always heard the numbers: #% black men in jail, #% black boys have fathers who are in prison or dead, #% man black boys will be arrested before age 21.

But that day back in 2009, as I prepared for a poetry class I was teaching in the library – those numbers were kicking me in the face. I’m sure each dad had a story. Needed money, a failed hoop dream turn drug dealer, quick car-jacking to get some cash, a fight that turned into a homicide or maybe just got caught with some weed one too many times. Either way; they, along with their son’s all became statistics. I wanted to invite them over to my poetry class, let them talk life out; hear what they had to say, see what kind of words they could put their thoughts into. But it wasn’t my place. As my high-schoolers arrived, I began my lesson, and let up a silent prayer for the 4 boys behind me.

My oldest son is as tall as me now. He’s smart, inquisitive, and very aware. I’ve spent many evenings trying to get him to understand that the way he lives is not the norm for other boys. His life of AAU teams, family trips, tutoring, cell phones, headphones, and home cooked meals is not a life a lot of kids get to live. The word “thankful” comes to mind here. He understands. He may not understand with the perspective I do, but he does understand.

I’ve never forgotten about those 4 boys in the library that day. Thankful my son wasn’t one of them and feeling guilty for thinking that. In my early 20s, I spent a lot time working in the community and participating in dialogue to help boys like that. However I’ve learned as a father of 4, one of the best ways I can bring about change now is to focus on the 2 sons and 2 daughters that are living under my roof and care. Maybe one day – they will care as much and do.

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