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'You Gotta Be Hard' - A Teacher Reflects on Kids and Gangs

Me against them. That was my attitude toward gangs when I started teaching seven years ago. I felt I was in direct competition with street gangs for the minds and souls of the children I taught. I realized that my outlook, as a rookie teacher recently transplanted from North Carolina, was shaped almost exclusively by the steady diet of gang-related horror stories I had been fed by the Chicago media. But that realization didn't make the frequent reports of seemingly random violence any less frightening or the issue of dealing with gangs inside schools any easier to figure out.

I was aware enough of statistical realities to know that gangs were present to some degree in almost every public school in the city. But because students came to Harold Washington from all over the south and west sides of Chicago, the gang situation there was particularly problematic. Neighborhood elementary schools normally had to deal with only one or two gangs; at Harold Washington, at least four had sizable numbers. It was a potentially explosive situation, and Harold Washington's administrative team made it clear to me that the best way to defuse it was to keep gang "representing" (which includes such things as hats and jackets with gang colors, hand signals, graffiti and verbal slogans) out of the school building altogether. So when Marvelous sketched out the Gangster Disciples' logo on his desk top, I didn't want to discuss it. I just wanted it gone. A month or so after the incident with Marvelous, I was on my assigned hall duty. The students' lunch period had just ended and, as usual, the hallways were full of criss-crossing teenagers. I nodded and said hello as a hodgepodge of kids hurried past me. To my left, about 20 feet away, a group of male students began to gather around William, a tall boy whose black jeans and navy blue hoodie camouflaged his rich, blue-black skin. William stood in front of the boys' bathroom, head slightly cocked. He gestured demonstratively toward two kids in front of him. I recognized the two boys as Marvelous and his ever-present shadow, Khan. Marvelous moved closer to William, almost touching his chest. Khan slid in beside him. As the taunts heated up and the boys' voices raised, a crowd quickly closed in around them, partially blocking my view. I turned to see if any other teachers were watching.

The next thing I knew, the hallway was up for grabs. Punches flailed wildly as shouts of "GD Nation!" and "What up, folk!" mixed in with screams, scrambling feet and bodies ramming into lockers. Opposing gang members threw hand signs defiantly into the air. While most students fled the action, others ran toward it. I tried futilely to keep them away. It was impossible to tell what was going on, who was doing what, who was on which side of the brawl. Then, suddenly, the thunderous voice of Moses Green, an eighth-grade math teacher, who the kids called "Preacher," rose above the din. "Marvelous Jenkins and Khantrell Davis, you better get up offa that boy!" The sea of onlookers parted at the sound of Moses Green's booming bass tones, but the fight's instigators continued to go at it. After a brief struggle Green managed to pull the boys apart, and then cornered all three against a locker, using his impeccably dressed six-foot-four frame as a blockade.

"I done told you fellas about representin' in this school," said the Preacher. "Now I can't do a whole lot about what you do when you leave here, but I'm telling you all one last time, and I'm not just talking to these fellas, I'm talking to every one of you standing here." He paused and glared at the crowd of students surrounding him. "Y'all better keep that gang mess outta this school! Do you follow me? Am I clear?" True to his nickname, Green delivered the lines with the punched cadences and fiery intensity of a spirited storefront evangelist. He was soon joined by the otherwise worthless school security guard, who helped cart all three boys downstairs. I tried to herd bystanders on to class. William, his shirt torn and blood running down his arm, pointed at Marvelous and Khan as he was led away. "Ya'll think ya'll hard!" he yelled. "You just a couple of busters! Ya'll ain't hard! Ya'll ain't no kinda hard!"

The day's final two periods were unproductive. Most of the kids were juiced because of the fight, but I tried to downplay it and proceed as if nothing had happened. Snippets of conversations reached my ears -- "BDs" this and "GDs" that and "Blackstones" something else. "Hey guys, it's over!" I said angrily. "I don't want to hear anything else about it. You heard what Mr. Green said. Leave that junk outside of school!" The kids disregarded my pleas and continued jabbering.

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