"A Different World" was the spin-off of "The Cosby Show" where one of the Cosby kids went to college. The Different World in question was, I guess, two-fold: living on his own, and being a Black man in the world instead of a Black kid in a familiar neighborhood. But even that world is not as different as the world of Black kids in urban neighborhoods.
Yesterday and today (and several other times in the past few weeks), I took part in a program that my martial arts school is involved with. We hold a weekly class for teenagers who have been convicted of drug-related offenses, but not violent offenses. These kids are free in the sense that they are not confined, but their daily lives are scheduled to the minute, and there are always people keeping track of where they are. And a few of them take our martial arts class for an hour a week. For the most part, these are teenagers that are about 2 or 3 lucky breaks away from just being normal, trying-to-make-a-decent-life teenagers. But because kids in those neighborhoods rarely get breaks, they were caught and sentenced to this program. It's a triage principle, I guess. The worst gang-bangers are just locked up. The law abiding kids are left to fend for themselves. These kids in the middle get a lot of attention so they won't end up in the first group. All of the boys in the program are Black. The girls are of several races*.
Only 5 of the boys stuck with the program for long enough to get to their first promotion test, which was today. I've been helping teach them for a few weeks (since I have so much more time in the summer). We practiced with them one last time yesterday. While I was changing into my uniform in a different room, a large group of these kids was left alone for a while. By the time I got back, it had degenerated into mass chaos. They were immensely loud, and 2 pairs of kids were fighting; they weren't angry, just playing--but the swings were real and could have seriously hurt someone if they had been good enough to actually connect. I compare this to the Commons at my school where kids are regularly left alone. Sure, they can get rowdy and there can be some play wrestling. But nothing like the chaos I saw when I got back. Society pushes all kids into non-kid behavior...that's the purpose of society, of course. But a White-dominated society pushes these Black kids so hard that when they let loose, the outbreak is much more extreme. It was not hard to see how, in a prison, this could turn into a riot.
Of course the 5 boys who tested did very well. One of them, I'll call him Greg, is a big kid...maybe 5'11" and 260 lbs. But he learned quickly that brute force doesn't work as well in martial arts as good technique, and when I thanked him for helping put away our mats, he said "no, thank you for coming out here." None of the other kids had the guts and decency to thank us. I will go to help out with that program whenever I can this summer, and Greg will probably still be in it by September. I'll probably never find out what happens to him in the long run. He's a really sweet guy, and I hope his guts and decency will bring him back from the brink.
Teaching those kids martial arts (even just an hour a week) is so drastically different from the teaching I do every day. I don't think I could teach them math knowing the kind of apathy that's so prevalent in the classrooms in the city. I like math, and I can overcome kids' math anxiety, but I have much more trouble with apathy.
Yeah, it's a different world. But really, of course, it's not a different world. I can drive there in less than half an hour. So many White people live in fear of individual Black people they meet, and so many Black people live in fear of the overwhelming mass of White people who don't understand their frustrations. We're both afraid of each other, and yet it's so easy to find a place (the martial arts mats, for instance) where race really just makes no difference at all. At a recent weekend seminar for our martial art (drawing about 70 people from around the country--even a few from Japan and Israel--who study our branch of it) I was almost finished with it before I realized that this was really one place where nobody cared at all about race. My roommate was Black, the instructors were Chinese-American, Japanese-American, White, Filipino, Latino. I don't think this is just me failing to see racism because I don't want it; I've been trained to see racism. All it took was to take the focus off of race and put it onto something we all had in common. It seems so easy. But it's not easy.
Sad and encouraging at the same time. A different world, yet not a different world. Doesn't exactly follow the logic of math.
*I use the word "race" in its socially defined sense. Genetically, there is more variability within a "race" than there is between "races". So the word doesn't really describe any biological reality. But it certainly describes a social reality.