Abstract: Former gang members share their stories and in doing so, their courage.
I will call them Bill and Steven—two teens who came to pay a visit to a class I took that dealt with crisis intervention strategies for adolescents. The topic of the evening was on “gangs.” Bill and Steven had been involved with gangs and were now working hard -- very hard -- on finding a way out of the gang with the help of their friend Tim. Tim is older. He is past his teens—he is an adult. He understood Bill and Steven for he has been working with them to help them understand themselves. You see, Tim, in his youth, had been in a gang. He keeps the tattoo on his hand to remind him and others of his past. He found his way out of gangs and was now dedicating his life to helping other boys find their way out. How was Tim doing this? He started a special, dynamic program that includes a group home. Tim works with teens on helping them create direction, purpose and understanding in their lives that keep them from needing the "gang” association.
The boys can trust Tim. Trust is the attribute that anyone working with teens needs to establish. Ask any teen. If you cross that line of “trust,” then you can cross out your “productive” role in a teen’s life. Tim is a ‘”no nonsense” kind of guy. He doesn’t goof around. He expects every one of his boys that he works with, to take responsibility of their actions. He also encourages them to do “outreach” as part of their program. Tim, knowing our instructor, agreed to come to our class and to bring Bill and Steven with him. This was Bill and Steven’s first experience on doing “outreach.”
As far as I am concerned, Bill and Steven are two of the bravest teens that I have seen in a long time. In an effort to help us to understand enough so that we could help other teens, they put themselves in the vulnerable position of allowing a class of 12 adults to ask whatever questions we wanted of them.
“What have your lives been like up to this point?”
Both boys talked about being brought up in families that were littered with abandonment, violence, abuse and changes…constant changes. They had changes in foster homes, parents, states, schools, therapists, counselors and more. They both talked honestly, openly and quietly. They were a bit timid to open up at first, but became more comfortable as the night progressed. Part of their comfort was probably due to the fact that we were all able to share a bit of humor. For starters, everyone -- the guests and the class -- became entertained. Although we all spoke English, it was quite obvious we all were still speaking in a different language. More than once their friend Tim had to translate a word of “ours” into a word that they were more familiar with on the streets. Another incident that brought a smile to everyone’s face was that at times they were very amused at our questions. So many questions of ours blatantly demonstrated how ignorant we were about life as a teen today, especially a teen in a gang who has had to deal with the things they have had to deal with.
"What kinds of things did you do that got you guys in trouble?"
Stealing, fighting, ditching school, to name a few.
"What made you decide to work with Tim and his program?"
It did not take us long to understand that Tim stood by their side during some tenuous moments with the law and with their schools. It also was evident that Bill and Steven were low on their options and working with Tim gave them more hope than Juvenile Hall – teen prison.
"What do you do in Tim’s group home?"
Both boys mentioned “group.” Basically, “group” consisted of having the whole house meet together to talk and discuss goals, actions and responsibilities. Bill and Steven shared their reticence in engaging in “group” when they first came to Tim. Now they almost enjoy it and are the role models for the “newer” boys that are there. They verbalized how it really has helped them.
The evening went on. We learned that Bill was placed in a special education class for most of the time with children that are severely emotionally disturbed. I’m not a specialist, but I have worked with severely emotionally disturbed children and adults. Bill did not seem to exhibit some of the attributes I’ve seen in other severely emotionally disturbed children. Bill DID seem to have found himself in some “severely dangerous and disturbing situations,” especially at school. Such situations would definitely challenge any school to comply with the law to develop an appropriate individualized educational program. It would have probably taken a lot of time, effort and, money, to find the least restrictive educational program to fit Bill’s needs. (Yet isn't that what we should be investing in all our students?) Hence, in the school’s mind, the class for severely emotionally disturbed children probably seemed like the most appropriate option for Bill. (I really don’t know how Bill tested on his standardized psychological and academic tests so I do not want to sound like I am judging anyone or any institution. I would have just liked to have known more about some of the educational options that were presented for Bill in Bill’s situation.) Bill also told us about the cast that was on his broken arm. The broken arm occurred when he took a detour last week and got into a fight at school.
I could go on and on about the stories we heard from Bill and Steven that evening. We asked them a lot of questions. We were honest with them and in return, they were honest with us. It was obvious that we were mesmerized and curious about what their lives had been like—then and now.
One of the most revealing questions was perhaps the last question. I just couldn't help myself and had to ask: “Many of tonight's questions are about your lives now. I want to ask about your lives 'then'--I want to know, what could we have done when you were in elementary school to keep you from joining a gang in the first place?
Without flinching, both Bill and Steven said in unison one word: