Sunday, September 17, 2017

Calm within the Chaos: Reflections on Jason Stockley Protests

I am not deterred, not this time. I am emboldened by history and a sense of renewed momentum. In times of great chaos, great people, inspirational young people, will rise to the occasion. 


I’m experiencing a strange sense of calm and gratitude while anger and frustration boils over in our region…again.
Let me try to explain.

Like many others, I am furious about the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white former St. Louis police officer charged with killing a black drug suspect, Anthony Lamar Smith, in 2011. To be blunt, it was injustice on a major scale. Once again, in the face of naked evidence – a cop with an unauthorized AK-47 is captured on tape saying he’s going to kill the fleeing suspect moments before the shooting. This cop is seen, again on tape, putting the automatic weapon in his car after putting four bullets into the suspect’s body. The cop is also seen rummaging through a duffel bag, where -“surprise, surprise”-an old, beat-up .38 revolver is produced. He claims he shot the suspect after he reached for the pistol. Yet, the only DNA on the gun was Stockley’s.



Stockley testified that his DNA was on the gun because he unloaded it as "a safety precaution." Safety for whom? Smith was already dead. Now, one would assume a judge would know police procedure. Why would a trained policeman handle evidence with his bare hands? Let's give him the benefit of the doubt. If he unloaded the bullets, where are they? Shouldn't they have been bagged for evidence. Remember, this was a revolver, bullets are loaded by hand into the chamber. Surely Smith's fingerprints would have been on the bullets...or Stockley's.
   
Stoking the embers of frustration even more was the long, five-year wait for some semblance of fairness. But, the dagger of injustice was shoved further into our backs by Timothy Wilson, a 70-year-old, white St. Louis Circuit Judge. While barricades were raised, while the national guard was on stand-by, the pretense of due process ended with a judge’s biased judgement. Based on his 30 years’ experience, Wilson wrote in his opinion, "…an urban heroin dealer” without a gun is “an anomaly."


Only “urban” dealers have guns? I suppose in suburban and rural areas, where more heroin is used and sold, guns are nonexistent. Damn, even white drug dealers have unearned privilege.



Wilson’s opinion is a carry-over from 160 years ago. That’s when United States Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney, in the 1857 Dred Scott case, ruled that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Today’s version is that blacks have no rights that white police need to respect, even if it cost them their lives.
But, I digress.  My anger has subsided…a bit. It’s mainly due to the response of people-white, black, “other,” lesbian, straight, old and young. They’re all in the streets, on the highways, byways and cross-ways. They’re making the case for yet another black man slain by police.  They’re bravely shouting, “black lives matter” downtown, midtown, at suburban malls, in popular business districts, in the county and throughout the region.  

“The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”

Those angry words of a protester brought it home for me.  It’s not just Stockley, it’s not just Judge Wilson, it’s not just the police department…”the whole damn system,” those who defend it, support it and those in charge of dispensing justice…are all “guilty as hell” and people, especially young people, know it and are expressing it…loudly.


“The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”

21st Ward Alderman, John C. Muhammad with nonviolent protesters


My sense of calm comes from a thread that connects back to the 2014 shooting of Mike Brown and the ensuing protests that influenced the nation.  That singular incident inspired and galvanized millions. It put police brutality and oppression under a world-wide spotlight and made body cameras a norm in police departments throughout the country. It reverberated in the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who also preached tearing down the whole damn “system” and starting over. It birthed a progressive movement in St. Louis politics that produced young new candidates like State Rep. Bruce Franks and Alderman John C. Muhammad (21st ward) and further solidified the reputations of “progressive” elected officials like Alderwoman Megan Ellyia Green and mayoral candidate and City Treasurer Tishaura Jones. All these folks and their constituents have been out in the streets.

Representative Bruce Franks at the center of the protests
The progressive fire wasn’t doused after the election of Donald Trump, a man who’s as adept as Hitler in using racism, patriotism, division and hatred to propel a paranoid racist, selfish and self-centered agenda. Although he’s emboldened angry white voters, white nationalists, Neo Nazi’s and white supremacists, this backwards movement has been countered by activated, engaged, outspoken, and again, a racially-mixed opposition of mostly young people.
Therein lies my sense of gratitude and hope. History has shown that young people have always been right when they choose to fight.  Young people and student “radicalism” in the 1960s and ‘70s were the catalytic weapons used to challenge the Vietnam War and overt, systematized racism. It was the battering ram for civil rights, human rights, voting rights, free speech, protecting the environment, defending women’s liberation and standing up for gay and lesbian rights.
I am not underestimating the seriousness of our times. I recognize the forces at play and the power of propaganda. I understand the mainstream media’s agenda to emphasize the bad examples of a destructive few, while attempting to dilute the power and actions of thousands who protest peacefully, defend property and lives diligently, who stand for humanity.  The trolls, the "Trumpettes," the race-baiters and Nazi-lovers will use video footage of stereotypes and angry black people to stoke the paranoid base.

I am not underestimating the seriousness of our times. I recognize the forces at play and the power of propaganda. 

Like in 2014, we’ve experienced yet another grave, systematic injustice. And, as it was back then, there will be loud, angry and, yes, destructive opposition. Change ain’t always pretty. Least we not forget, destruction in the form of violent and disruptive revolution is an American tradition. Let us not forget the destructive Boston Tea Party incident that preceded the Revolutionary War. Additionally, there would be no labor unions today if not for the thousands upon thousands of violent protests from 1886 up to modern times where a reported 8,800 acts of violence happened between 1975 and 2011 alone.
I’m in no way condoning violence or the destruction of property. I only mention these events to correct the naive notion that change comes without consequences. If thousands are protesting, there will be a few knuckleheads, opportunists and anarchists stirring up trouble. However, they do not represent the movement and shouldn't be portrayed as such.

In times of great chaos, great people, inspirational young people, will rise to the occasion. 

In summary, I am not deterred, not this time. I am emboldened by history and a sense of renewed momentum. In times of great chaos, great people, inspirational young people, will rise to the occasion. And, St. Louis is no exception.  Once again, the universe, with all its confusing, convoluting and crazy machinations has tossed down the gauntlet of challenge. And, once again, brave young people, mostly, have chosen to respond to this clarion call. Once again, we’re at a crossroad in America. What I am witnessing today in the streets of our region is a reminder that we shall overcome…again.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

OWN THE LAND: BUILD COMMUNITY WEALTH


“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” - Malcolm X-1963.


Imagine young people, along with low-income residents owning some of the 3,500 + vacant lots in the City of St. Louis. Let us also imagine them growing food together and selling it at local farmer’s markets. What possibilities may come if there were an industrial kitchen and food manufacturing plant in North St. Louis? Visualize a brand, like Del Monte or Glory Foods comprised of youth and local residents growing food and making their own food products? Think of the economic benefits of stores, schools, hospitals, restaurants, bakeries, and other entities, here and across the country, buying food and/or food products from land-owners in North St. Louis.

This is the juncture where imagination meets reality. This year, SPP has collaborated with a new North St. Louis collective of food-related nonprofits working primarily in the Greater Ville area. This cooperative, the North City Food Hub (NCFH), is working to build community resources that include a community café, fresh food market, an industrial kitchen to develop food products, a small business incubator, a farmer's market and classes in horticulture, small business, land procurement and product development and distribution -- all in the Greater Ville area of North St. Louis.




This is a game-changer. It's a practical vision of a large collective of nonprofits and North St. Louis land-owners empowered through food. The Sweet Potato Project's role is to bring as many low-income (age-appropriate) students and adults into the process as possible. Land ownership, we believe, is the key to community ownership. Not only will this collective educate young people in horticulture and entrepreneurism, it offers a practical approach to addressing unemployment, neighborhood decay, food deserts, nutritional needs and neighborhood revitalization. 


 




 Some of the members of the North City Food Hub
This initiative has the potential of creating a new, all-inclusive model of community development. Because everyone eats, there’s opportunity to grow other spin-off businesses. For example, Tower Grove Farmer’s Market generates about $2 million dollars annually in one neighborhood. People visit to buy fresh food but they stay to enjoy the coffee shops, restaurants and bars that have seen increased patronage from foodies. Food-related opportunities (trucking, security, restaurants, and bars) can see similar benefits from a North St. Louis food system.


Simply put, people who own the land have a personal stake in protecting and utilizing the land. This summer, students received lessons from St. Louis University professors in small business development, land-ownership, marketing, branding and more. Some are ready to become land-owners. With your support, we help neighborhood youth and adults build gardens and participate in a North St. Louis food-based economic engine early next year.

Good Life Growing, a member of the North City Food Hub, will open a grocery store in the Old North Neighborhood soon. Click here to read story

There's much work to do to bring this vision into fruition. We're inviting politicians, city officials, churches, community organizations and anyone with the expertise, desire to participate and passion to help us rebuild communities and empower people through food. 

If you're interested, email our executive director, Sylvester Brown at sylvesterbj@gmail.com and we'll make sure you're contacted about upcoming meetings and events. 




Sunday, August 20, 2017

Nurturing the Seeds: Reflections on the 2017 Sweet Potato Project


It was a big day for one of my students, Darryeon Bishop (21).   This summer, he bought his first automobile, a tan, 4-door, Chevy Impala, mid-2000 model. He used his savings to buy the car for under $3,000. That morning, we greeted each other on the front steps of Annie Malone’s Children’s Home where the Sweet Potato Project (SPP) has been fortunate enough to hold classes this year.

Darryeon Bishop
The car was another significant milestone in Darryeon’s life. He’s been with our project since its inception in 2012. Darryeon’s a tall, lanky, shy kid who squints his eyes when he smiles. He comes from one of the roughest neighborhoods in our city. I remember dropping him off after class one day in 2012. There was a discarded car bumper, broken glass and bits and pieces of parts scattered in the street not far from the front of the 4-family building his family occupied near the Grand water tower.

“Wow, looks like someone had a pretty bad accident,” I commented.

“That was no accident, Mr. Brown,” Darryeon responded, far too nonchalantly considering his follow-up words: “That was a drive-by.”

This wasn’t the only act of violence Darryeon has witnessed. One day a few years back, he called to tell me that he’d seen a man shot in broad daylight. He watched the man breathe his last breadth, bleeding on the side his car. It was the non-pulsed way Darryeon shared the story that stayed with me.

In the past six years, I’ve heard many stories from the youth we serve. As a writer by trade, who’s spent the past 30+years, writing about the plights, challenges, and potential of black people, I feel blessed to have a program and young people in my life who remind me that we don’t have to be passive observers of the chaos and dysfunction that’s part of growing up black and poor. We can do something.

Darryeon’s encounters with death and violence isn’t an isolated case. Often, I’ve read about a shooting or murder only to find out that the degrees of separation aren’t that far apart. I will never forget an incident a couple of years ago. Three brothers who were fine at the start of the summer program, started acting strange around week three. Turns out, they were at a family party were an uncle was killed by his girlfriend. I had read about the incident but had no idea that one of the brothers, my student, held the tourniquet to his uncle’s slit throat. It wasn’t until one of our volunteer instructors encouraged the boys to share the incident with the class that their strange behavior subsided.

I’ve seen the results of similar incidents: youth who’ve been quietly traumatized and stigmatized by the loss of a friend, a relative or a neighbor. Yet, they move on with a disturbing sense of acceptance. It’s an indication that we, as a nation, have fallen way short in recognizing and addressing the perils that poverty has on our young people.

“Bam!” That was Darryeon, whipping out his spankin’, new driver’s license and insurance card that summer morning. Indeed, he’s come a long way from the shy, quiet kid who lived in dangerous surroundings. Now, he's a confident, independent, informed and engaged young man (he’s a fervent news hawk now). He’ll be graduating from Southeast Missouri State University with a bachelor’s degree in communications next year.

I owe David Steward, founder of World Wide Technology, a huge debt of gratitude. The donation from World-Wide Technology and the Steward Family Foundation, allowed me to focus on the students and not scurry around all summer trying to raise money while running the program. This summer, I had the rare opportunity to double-down on our curriculum which has been designed to address the unique circumstances of at-risk youth. Our goal is to meet them where they are and show them how to use what’s at hand to craft their own versions of success.


After every summer session ends, I’m heartened by the fact that our students are open-minded, eager to change their communities and create opportunities for their siblings and peers. But, I’m equally intimidated because we’ve planted a seed and exposed them to possibilities that may not be possible without more help and resources.

Still, they give me hope.  This year, I was blessed to have some of my senior students, like Darryeon, return to the program. They conducted classes in my absence. Along with an intern, Modanna Woods, the experienced students served as my voice, eyes, ears, and confidantes. They kept me tuned into the group’s dynamics. 

Edie Adams
Edie Adams (21), who’s been with us for about three years now, unabashedly spoke of her desire to own property and “make a difference.” I can write a chapter about Marquitta Williams (22), my unofficial nemesis from the beginning of the program. My, how we battled over the years. At one point, I fired her, only to bring her back after she wrote me a letter declaring that I hadn’t “been listening” to her and some other students. That letter serves as motivation for a book I’ve been working on tentatively titled “When We Listen.”

Marquitta’s grown now. Oh, she’s still as opinionated and sometimes confrontational as ever but her natural leadership and communication skills-traits that made her stand out for me from the start-are percolating and maturing nicely. I have no doubt that Marquita will someday supervise people or run or own a business. 

I’ve gained huge respect for three female students who’ve been with us for the past three years. One of them, the seeming leader, has become my hero. At an early age, she tended to a mother who was struck by a terminal illness. After her mother passed away and her father had a stroke, this young lady still attended and graduated high school while living in an abandoned building. She has inherited treatable but expensive illnesses and frequently finds herself in an emergency room. But she hasn’t given up. She’s the mother hen of two life-long friends, one with a new baby. After attending SPP classes, the girls took a two-hour bus trip to Chesterfield for cleaning service work. Together, they look out for and encourage one another. The mother hen attends college in Georgia and is pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor. 

  

The 2017 young recruits were a mixed bag of personalities and heart-wrenching yet inspiring stories.  Aaliyah, 16, has written a book of fiction already. After our small business lessons, she now understands how easy it is to publish-on-demand and market the book online and through promotional appearances. Her “boyfriend,” Camron (16), has Steve Jobs or Bill Gates potential. I challenged the class to come up with a marketable product. I don’t know if Camron’s idea for a phone case with a built-in booster speaker has been created or not but it seems like a multi-million-dollar notion.  His, was just one of several ideas the group presented and tinkered with this summer. They remind me that creativity, resiliency, and the art of survival is encoded in their DNA and should not be so easily dismissed, denied, locked up or locked out in this country. 

They remind me that creativity, resiliency, and the art of survival is encoded in their DNA and should not be so easily dismissed, denied, locked up or locked out in this country. 

I won’t mention the names of another three young ladies (ages 17 to 19) who joined us this year. Two have babies already. The girls live together (off and on) and had trouble making classes on time. Yet, two of them have a strong knack for writing and the youngest shyly articulated ideas for a business she wants to start before the year ends.

These young women gave me a glimpse into the world of navigating lives tempered by poverty and sometimes bad choices. They remind me that there’s love and true compassion in the neighborhoods from which they hail. A story they shared with the class about seeing a man passed out on a bench in the Baden Neighborhood emphasized another element rarely attributed to ghetto life. They pulled over, got out of their car, and tried to assist the man only to find out he was strung out on some sort of hallucinogenic drug.  They stayed with this stranger until an ambulance arrived. They didn’t have to, but they cared.

They pulled over, got out of their car, and tried to assist the man only to find out he was strung out on some sort of hallucinogenic drug.  

This is the attitude that we seek to foster at SPP. There are young people among us who have a passion and commitment to the neighborhoods from which they were born-no matter how dysfunctional they may appear to outsiders. We need to nurture and provide resources for a generation of youth willing to be held accountable for the future of North St. Louis. One of the three ladies I mentioned will now attend Forest Park Community College thanks to a visit we arranged with the High School to College Center in U City. I would like to see her compadres become owners of vacant property where they can grow food and earn money while pursuing their ambitions. In fact, I envision dozens of young people owning land and making money off fresh food and food-based products. If we can help these young people do this, others will follow  and very soon we can have a community of young people economically and spiritually-vested in their neighborhoods.

I could go on about the students I learned from this summer. But I prefer to talk about what’s next for them. Because I can’t do it without you.

This year, I’m really able to put words, lessons, and exposure into action. SPP is part of a new collective called the North City Food Hub (NCFH). It’s a group of nonprofits committed to using food as an economic engine starting in the Greater Ville area of North St. Louis.  There will be more details to come but in brief, the collective will have culinary, small business, horticulture, restaurant management, land-ownership classes and business incubator opportunities before the spring. Very soon, we’ll be able to help our students and adults gain access to land, grow food, and bring fresh produce and food-based products (packaged goods) to market.

Very soon, we’ll be able to help our students and adults gain access to land, grow food, and bring fresh produce and food-based products (packaged goods) to market.

We’ve planted a fertile seed this summer. We’ve shown our students how they can participate in urban renewal, we introduced them to entrepreneurs and business people who talked about the benefits (and pitfalls) of revitalizing and/or re-gentrifying neighborhoods. They’ve met professors and experts who’ve helped take some of the mystery out of buying/leasing vacant properties, the principles of supply & demand,” growing food and starting businesses.  They are ready! But, I fear we won’t be able to follow up on our promises without more immediate support. 



Here’s where I take off the instructor hat and transition to my role as fund-raiser and recruiter of volunteers. Let me start by laying out our specific needs for the rest of the year.

First, I need to raise enough money to keep the students in the fold. It is imperative that they see tangible results of what we’ve preached over the summer. Our sweet potatoes will be ready for harvest by mid-October. There will be a “shared-use” kitchen in the Ville early next year but I want my students baking, meeting people, and selling our program and products (sweet potato cookies) before the holiday season. I’m working with SLU but I’d like other options for consistent baking, professional packaging, and the distribution of our cookies. Ideas and connections are welcome.

I’m reaching out to lenders and politicians to make this land-ownership thing more do-able for our age-appropriate youth and low-income adult residents. Land ownership, I maintain, is key to true community accountability and transformation. Simply put, people who own land have a personal stake in protecting it. Imagine young people, alongside adults growing food and selling food together. What possibilities may come from the creation of a North St. Louis food brand like Del Monte or Glory Foods? Think of the economic benefits of local grocery stores, schools, hospitals, restaurants, bakeries, and other entities buying food and products from hard-working, young, and older North St. Louis land-owners.

As you can see, SPP has a big mission that’s in need of big support. I need people who see the total picture and instantly recognize their roles in bringing it to fruition. Yes, I need money…lots and lots of money, but I also need connections and people with influence willing to go-to-bat for our youth and real, sustainable economic progression in long-ignored areas of our region.

Growing up poor has left me with this crippling inability to "beg" or ask for money. I’m great at articulating the vision, pretty good with the kids but I suck at closing the deal and bringing in the necessary resources to consistently operate SPP. Thankfully, people like Steward and other faithful donors get the big picture and have helped us get to this point. Still, the onus is on me to do better. My job, however, is made easier by Darryeon, Marquita, Edie, Aaliyah, Camron and other youth mentioned or not mentioned in this commentary.


You see, it’s not about me or my poor money-making capabilities. It’s about collectively investing in young and poor people and experimenting with the idea that they will be the spark for self-sufficient, money-generating communities. It’s about following up on promises made this summer and making “success” a real, tangible, palatable thing for urban youth who rarely recognize do-able opportunities.  In a way, it’s about nurturing the seeds and bringing the bounty to harvest. With your help, all this and more is possible. 


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Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Stolen Laptop and a Teachable Moment




“Mr. Brown, we have a problem.”

It was the kind of call, I dread. Leslie Gill, CEO of Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center was on the line.  The social service agency has allowed the Sweet Potato Project to hold classes on its premises. It was Tuesday and we had just wrapped up our day with a visit to a social engineering firm in midtown St. Louis. Thankfully, I have three senior students and an intern with vehicles. So we usually split the group up and have made frequent trips throughout the summer. 

There were three students in my car when Gill called. Apparently another three had returned to Annie Malone. That wasn’t unusual, some go back to the center to retrieve their belongings or to get picked up by a parent or friend.

“Someone stole a laptop from the office next to your classroom,” Gil went on. “She left her office for about 15 minutes and there were only three of your kids here at the time.”

Damnit! In six years of operating the program, I’ve only had one similar incident. A kid stole a volunteer’s cell phone from the Catholic school pantry where we held classes at that time. The student eventually fessed up and we worked out a situation where he could redeem himself by working a week for free in the pantry. It worked out. the young man and I still chat every now and then. But the initial feelings of betrayal and lost trust was something I never wanted to experience again.

Those feelings returned after I heard about the stolen laptop. Of the three suspected students, I instantly knew the culprit. He’s often late, he makes up excuses to miss or step outside class. I’ve had to talk to him about his work ethic.

Still, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. After all, there were two other possible suspects, one boy and one girl. I sweated bullets that night grappling with the best way to get the thief to fess up, return the stolen item and rebuild trust for our program.

“I told you all a few weeks ago, that two things I can’t stand and will not tolerate is a thief and a liar,” I said surrounded by the students that Wednesday morning.

When I went into detail, the students became as angry as me. 

“Aw, man, whoever it was makes us all look bad,” one student responded. “Exactly,” I continued. “One of you did it and perhaps one or two more know who did it. This is unacceptable and we have to make this right.”

Everybody, including the kid I suspected, swore they knew nothing about the laptop. I told them the police had been called, they took fingerprints so the culprit might as well confess. I was embarrassed as hell when two Annie Malone staff members came into the class to talk about the ramifications of stealing their property. The workers explained that the matter would be dropped if the laptop was returned. The thief had until the next day (Thursday) to bring the laptop back or there would be hell to pay.

One of my senior students, Marquita, asked if she could call out the bandit. She suspected the same student as I, in fact, most of the students did. I told her “no,” the kid had until the next day to confess and redeem himself.

My funky mood intensified that evening. To be honest, I was hurt. This has been a good year for the Sweet Potato Project. A nice donation from David Steward of World Wide Technology, Inc. allowed me to focus on the kids and not spend every summer day trying to raise money to pay them, like the past two years. It’s been a pure joy working with this group. Yeah, some have real problems, a couple are rock heads or jokesters but they were opening up. Their essays about the things they’ve learned, the entrepreneurs and professionals they’ve met and our conversations about reclaiming and revitalizing disadvantaged neighborhoods had given me (as corny as it may sound) hope.

You see, I have the honor of working with young people who live the reality behind sensationalized headlines or soul-crushing stereotypes. Most know poverty, most have lost a loved one to senseless violence or treatable illnesses. Most are children who've been hardened by broken educational, criminal justice and economic systems. They’re ability to navigate chaos while still dreaming big dreams simply amazes and humbles me.

I had the kids submit sentences or paragraphs for a collective student pledge. Their creative use of the words “unity, dignity, community and self-sufficiency” had convinced that they get it, that they’re open to the impossible. For me, the pledge and our mission had been sullied by this one deceitful act. The fact that we might not be trusted in the building angered me immensely.


Their creative use of the words “unity, dignity, community and self-sufficiency” had convinced that they get it, that they’re open to the impossible.

I dreaded the next day even more. Nobody was going to admit anything, I suspected. By morning, I had decided that the whole class would have to chip in to replace the computer and I’d fire the suspected thief, even if he didn’t confess.

As I walked into the center Thursday morning, the receptionist motioned me into his office. As I opened the door, he pointed to a laptop on his desk. He told me the name of a female student who had returned it. She came to class early, he said, remorseful and crying. Something in her soul, he said, repeating her words, compelled her to return the computer. She also told him she would not be returning to class. She was too ashamed.

I was floored. I’d heard the student had issues at home but she seemed so attentive, engaged, and personable in class. Besides, one of Annie Malone’s staffers had driven her home that day. Surely, the worker would have noticed a laptop in her possession or some sort of shady behavior.

The first thing I did Thursday morning was talk to the boy I immediately suspected of stealing the laptop. I told him the name of the real thief and apologized for indicting him. His response shamed me: “Mr. Brown, I remember that day you said you couldn’t stand thieves. I ain’t no thief!”

I thanked him for his honesty and told him why I thought he was the culprit. “This is going to happen to you again in the real world unless you step up your game and stop taking shortcuts.” He promised he would.

I was sorry to hear the offending girl was not returning. I felt she had redeemed herself.  I wanted to use the incident as a teachable moment. I’d find some way for her to pay a penance but she would not be fired.

About a half hour later a car pulled up and the girl I was told had stolen the laptop jumped out. As she headed for the front door, I called her name. She came over. I said, “thank you for returning the computer.” She looked at me as if I had cursed her mother. “Returned what…I didn’t steal anything!”

“Wait, what? I was just told that you’d came in early, dropped off the computer and apologized.” Again, I got that look. “I just got here. It wasn’t me,” she insisted.

I went back to the receptionist. He now realized he'd made a mistake. The girl who brought the laptop back was not my student. I ran upstairs but it was too late. The poor girl had already gone up to class where word had spread she was the perpetrator. She walked into a room of dirty looks and not-so-subtle indictments. I quickly made the announcement that she had been wrongly accused. Thank goodness, she seemed to understand the mishap.

We had a “neighborhood walk” scheduled along the Cherokee strip that day. My mood had improved significantly. Gil had called me upon arriving to fill me in on the details of the mysterious theft. Two girls, claiming to be new students of the Sweet Potato Project, had gone upstairs, and stolen the employee’s laptop. Whatever, it wasn’t one of my students.

Outside Red Guitar Bread on the Cherokee Strip

After we visited a couple of businesses on the strip and talked about the upswing in the neighborhood and the heavy Latino influence, I took the kids to La Vallesana restaurant and ice cream shop. “Get yourselves a snack,” I jubilantly told them. As I watched them sitting out on the veranda, chatting, writing notes, nibbling ice cream or Mexican food, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude.

They didn’t betray me. What I’ve seen in them is real, and our pledge means something after all. Everything was as it should be.

Snacks on the veranda of La Vallesana on the Cherokee Strip