By KEVIN CORDI
I just told my students that I had been jumped (attacked) three different times in my life. The class was silent while I recounted how strangers had slammed their fists in my jaw when I was only 14 years old. While assessing their awareness of violence and its probable causes, I asked them why such an attack could have happened. One student said that I must have been in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. As fast as an impulse, my students automatically wanted to guess the race of the people who attacked me, and they had the stereotypical guesses in their society that was characterized with racism.
I asked them why the race of the person and the place it happened was more important than the action itself. I also asked them if they really believed an entire race of people could be responsible for someone being victimized. Following their response, I explained the need to not place blame for a wrongful action to a skin color, because it perpetuates stereotyping and racism. I explained that there was not a bad race, but people of every hue who have made bad choices to hurt others for what seemed to fulfill their own need.
To further assess their understanding of choices my students could have in such situations, I shared with them the time I was forced to grovel for my life and the shame that I felt when I handed the coins in my pocket to my attacker. I then asked “What you would do if it happened to you?” The students’ responses ranged from “They would never do that to me” to “I would have fought back” and even retaliation they had learned in their young lives; “I would get them back.” I told them that in all cases I would never fight back because I did not believe a violent response to violence was a solution to the problem that caused it. After that statement, you could have heard a pin drop in our classroom filled with teenage silence. The class did not know how to react as they considered the idea of disrupting a chain of violence. Following their silent contemplation, I described basic principles of anger management and preventing or stopping physical violence that can result when one is not strong enough to avoid it.
We continued to discuss non-violence until the bell rang. It was one of those days that you did not know if your listeners could relate to your personalized lesson. My students rushed to their next class, that is all except one of them.
He stood in front of my desk and waited till I saw him. He had always been quiet in class, as though he had much to think about. He had entered school late that year and I did not yet know much about him. The school personnel tried to give me a copy of his records when he arrived, but it is my policy to know the student present with me before reading their history in a file. However, I could tell by the thickness of his records, this was not an average student who had few experiences of interest to members of his former schools. Waiting for the right time to learn that history was most valuable. I will never forget the story the quiet teenager then shared with me.
Mr. Cordi, I was from East Los Angeles before I moved here to the
Central Valley. I don’t want to live in LA anymore, and I
want to tell you why.
My friend and I were at the tunnels and he was spray-painting our gang’s mark so that it was brilliant red. It was larger than life. We never saw them approaching us, but there were two members of a rival gang. Our painted mark on the tunnel gave us away, if you know what I mean.
One of the bigger boys was a drop-out from high school, was missing his front tooth and was said to be a dealer of hard drugs. He took out a gun and aimed it at us! I never knew fear like that. In seconds, I could be no more. The gun was aimed right at my face. In an instant, I had a thought of my poor mother standing over my funeral not able to look at my face because it would be blown away by the bullet. A closed casket was my next destination! Maybe they just wanted to scare us, but having that barrel aimed right at me made me think about my life, I mean really think about my life.
They laughed at us and we ran. I ran and with each step I had second thoughts about our crew [our gang]. My crew was mean. We used to go to the elementary school and tempt the kids with pot or tease the old man at the market. We knew he had trouble running and would never catch us. We thought it was funny. Back then I thought I was unstoppable, but at once that gun silenced us. We felt powerless against it. Then I saw just how funny my gang was not and I decided to leave the gang. But, once you are in a gang, it is impossible to get out!
The next day I was riding the public bus to school thinking about how to get out of the gang. I hated riding the bus. You never know what kind of strange people ride it, but I was determined not to have anyone sit next to me. I pulled up my hood, played my Walkman full blast and stretched out my legs on the seat next to me. This was insurance that I would have the whole seat to myself.
The bus stopped and picked up one passenger who I will NEVER forget. She walked down the aisle and stopped right at my seat. She moved my legs over like they were paper, and then she sat next to me. She had long stringy hair that covered most of her face while she wore a baseball cap, which just looked out of place. She had a tattoo of cryptic letters on her arm, which I could still see even though they were fading. She was wearing torn jeans and clutching a grocery sack. She took one look at me and said, “You in a gang? “Who did you hang with?”
How dare she ask me about my crew. How dare she even talk about my gang! All I could think of was if my gang was with me right now she would not be asking such rude questions. That would certainly scare her into shutting her mouth.
The strange woman kept talking. “When I was about your age, I was in a gang. If I remember right, we even beat up a few people who use to be in your group years ago. Son that was a long time ago and it has taken me years, but I learned that being a gang was like having a noose around my neck. I had to break free.”
I thought to myself, how did she know about my gang? Who was this woman? She went on. “I became a drug addict. You name it, I took it; crank, crack, meth, and you think my gang, my crew, would help me? No son, they were the people who gave me the drugs. I lost everything, even my boyfriend at the time. I went to Juvie [Juvenille Hall] and I was sent to a dozen rehabilitation centers.”
She rolled up her long sleeve shirt and said, “You see these lines in my arms?” While showing me, the veins jumped out of them like a cat in a crosswalk. Her arms looked more like a roadmap than an arm.
She said, “I became a drug addict because of the pressure from my crew, pressure, not choice, pressure! Is that what you want?”
She then took her hand and wiped the hair away from her face. “Look at me boy.” She held my face until I could not veer away. I mean she really looked at me. She had lines up and down her face; lines that only a knife blade could make.
“This is what the gang gave me. Feel these lines.” She put my hand on her face. I will never forget the grooves. The permanent scars, the reminder of her gang. It was a mark no one would want, especially for the rest of their life.
“Turn around boy, you need to turn around and not look back. You don’t want these marks. Turn around son. Listen to me because I have been THERE.”
That day I took one long deep breath and I ran from the gang. I felt scared, but free. I moved away to the Central Valley, which they say has the worst air in the nation. But boy, did it smell good to me. I was free not to look behind me. I no longer feel like a coiled spring, instead more like a cool breeze on a new day. I wanted to unwind, I wanted to let go of….the pressure.
And I am doing just that.
My student told his story while looking off, then turned back to face me and said, "Tell them Mr. Cordi; it IS possibly to turn around.” He continued to do well in school, is now working toward college and has not turned back since.
Kevin Cordi, nationally known teller/ teacher recently produced two CDs. Peace Talk: The Other Side of the Story (which includes Turn Around) and stories from his award-winning high school storytelling troupe: Non-violent Means Told by Teens. He believes by telling our stories, we create choices.
His website is www.kevincordi.com