Life in the ‘hood…a la NorCal

Creepy title, I know. Like I’m somehow a gangbanger in Northern California. Unfortunately, gang relatedness became a part of my life several years ago. But even before that, when I was a student teacher, I was confronted by non gang-related violence when the shooting happened in my school. I was trapped inside a classroom with twenty-some students as a mad former student raged through the halls, screaming and shooting. He killed four and injured ten or fifteen others. I was changed that day, forever. Possibly not for the better, but who can judge, if I don’t even know? It certainly changed my outlook.

But the thing I’m thinking about this morning is different from that event. I’m thinking today about rural gang violence. People think of gang activity as an urban thing, mostly. Yet more and more, I see rural poverty as more similar to urban life than the pastoral setting that the word “rural” brings to mind. In the school where I taught, where my daughter now teaches, there are at least four gangs represented, maybe five by now, I’m not sure. Each has the area where they hang out, and when they go on the move, so do security and administrative personnel, ready for the fight that is imminent. Over the years, I’ve lost many students to gang-related activity. Some have run away or left the area to go live with relatives in “safer” places. A few have died.

Several years ago, after the murder of one of my students, another young man told me that if I could bring myself to go to the funeral I should go. He said that the family of the fallen young man had lost great face in the community by the shameful death of their son, and if I, a teacher went to the funeral, it would show that the boy and by extension the family was respected. My presence would help the family regain the face they had lost as a result of the death of their son. So I go. It is the least I can do for these stricken families.

I used to (naively) think that if I could stay on them in high school. if we somehow helped them avoid gang involvement in high school they would be in the clear, safely off to their futures. This was mistaken thinking in several ways. First of all, no matter how close I was to them, the likelihood of my keeping them from gang involvement was very slim. Their lives outside of school are way bigger than the time they are there. And the time they are most likely to become involved in a gang is before high school, before I know them. And even if a young person doesn’t want to be in a gang, if a sibling is involved they have no choice. They are treated by opposing gangs as if they are in one anyway. Often this sibling-related gang involvement occurs after high school, when they are in their early twenties.

Last week there was a gang-related shooting in the community. This one was unusual in that it involved gang members from different ethnicities. In our area, the gangs are usually fighting within their own ethnicities. This one was surprising in its difference. Now two sixteen year olds and a fourteen year old are in jail, waiting to be tried as adults for this crime, and at least one of their siblings will not walk the stage of his high school graduation because he is no longer safe in the community. He has been sent to an undisclosed location, probably far away. He was in school when the shooting occurred, but it doesn’t matter. He is the brother of one of the accused. These boys lost an older brother to murder last year. That case, like most of them was not solved. Is this a continuation? That information is not public knowledge.

I wish I could feel other than completely powerless in this situation. I hate so to see young lives wasted in this way. I just doesn’t make sense, yet there is no off switch. Just a trigger.


2 thoughts on “Life in the ‘hood…a la NorCal

  1. Bonnie says:

    This is another issue I don’t remember I had to ever deal with. I do remember though when I recently worked on my DS project with Martha, this was a serious problem in Newburgh.
    I wonder how this affects new teachers. Does it add to young teachers leaving the profession? Any death is hard to deal with. At Pearl River the school community came together when kids died in car accidents or from drugs or suicides, but gang death, I wonder how that’s different.

  2. lynnjake says:

    Oddly enough, Bonnie, I think this issue often serves to help keep young teachers involved in the profession. The kids are usually at least approachable, if not completely charming, and teachers get a sense that we can make a difference, that we might be the one adult that they connect with. Being on the outside, we can’t ever completely understand how gang culture works, so we think that there is a chance we can save a student. I do believe it is possible to make a difference, but not as much as we would wish for. Too much goes on outside our sphere of influence that we have no idea about. And in a strange way, by attending the funerals that occur we do make a difference for the families. Fortunately the funerals are few and far between. Sadly, they still do occur.

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