Helping the Little Guys

Thinking back over my jobs in my early student years, I realized that my really productive things had been helping little guys get on with their lives — such things as camp counseling summers, school monitoring during the rest of the year in my American and British schools, helping groups in community centers both in East London and in lower West Harlem in NYC. All of these kids appreciated having a big brother figure in their shaping their lives. All were eager to please. The occasional bully could generally be persuaded that the job of big guys was to care for little ones, not to abuse them.

The brick wall that I ran into during my last stretch of working with a little gang at the Manhattanville Community Center on West 125th St., Harlem, was that my final group of kids was facing incredibly grim and hopeless futures. To start off they, like the London kids, were partial orphans. But whereas the Londoners had lost fathers in the war, the Harlem kids had had their fathers driven from their homes by our welfare laws which denied men access to welfare homes. Midnight searches would be carried out to make sure no father had snuck home. The cruelty here was that many of these fathers had been drawn from the South to do war jobs and then laid off when the veterans returned to reclaim their positions. So I was as a male figure much more than just big brother. My little gang was always hungry, so we baked cakes rather than doing the usual activities that boys would do — basketball or whatever. I would bring the cake mixes to work.

One night the guys wanted to have a party with girls invited. I figured no girls would be interested in a party with 12 and 13 year olds. So I drafter my fiancee and a friend from Sarah Lawrence to fill in. The guys danced with them and were models hosts, bringing chairs to wherever they wanted to rest.

This saga ended with our marriage and departure for studies at Oxford the next year. I lost touch with most of the kids, but began to hear sad tales of their fates — a gay prostitute, doing time for armed robbery. These were kids who had been desperately eager to join a society that had no place for them. In the end 3 of about a dozen survived — one as a hero cop who filled me in on the rest. All of them had died violently — the last, Shorty, the little guy who made everyone laugh with his antics by heading out a project window.

While great gains have been made by kids since my days back then — I have taught many in the City University of NY. Far too many I fear are destined to be destroyed by American society which still has no place for them — all those deaths and jail sentences. One can only know the frustration by experiencing it or seeing it first hand.

I appreciate the efforts to encourage such kids to take responsibility for their lives, but one must realize that much help in doing so is essential also.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]
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