First Grade Gun

First Grade Gun

Tyrone bragged that his friend brought a gun to school. In the six months I’d known him he’d told me a few tales, like he and his little brother went to Winter Wonderland at Navy Pier. He didn’t have a little brother, but I often held my confrontational tongue with him in an effort to give him space to be himself. I thought if I earned his trust, eventually he’d stop trying to beguile me with fanciful stories.

He was my seven year-old charge in a weekly volunteer tutoring program. During our first getting-to-know-you session we followed a Q & A script developed by the program administrators. We both had dogs. He had a baby sister. I had grandchildren. He went to a school on Chicago’s west side. I was not sure who mothered him. He mentioned an aunt and a grandmother. He proudly mentioned his father. He wasn’t explicit, and looked away in silence when I pressed for details, what does he do? I eased off to save him from having to think up a story. And really, I didn’t want to know.

The tutoring session consists of helping kids with their homework, creating art projects and playing board games. Tyrone didn’t need help with homework. I guided him while he wrote down answers to math problems and filled in words in sentences. He never got anything wrong, and I praised him for being so smart. I helped him put his homework neatly in his backpack. When I started to reach in and straighten other things in his backpack, he balked at that intrusion. He often hid a football or basketball in there and feared others would see. I surmised he was prohibited from bringing balls to school, and he thought they may be forbidden at tutoring as well. Maybe he was afraid for other reasons.

When I quizzed him about the details of the gun, he said he saw it in his friend’s backpack, that his friend found it in ththe backyard and that it had bullets in it. I asked if he told his teacher. “No! He’s my best friend!”

Research finds youth from risk-filled backgrounds who successfully transition to the adult world of employment and good citizenship have had the consistent presence of a caring adult. Tutoring programs give kids this opportunity. As a first-time tutor, I attended orientation where consistency and trust were emphasized.

I connected with Tyrone in summer camp. Some kids would point to volunteers and brag, “That’s my tutor!” Having no information about what a tutor is, Tyrone asked me to be his tutor. Yes, I committed to years-long care and support of Tyrone beginning that fall.

I doubted Tyrone’s tale about the gun, but gun-in-school carries weight. I couldn’t  bear it alone. I consulted with a supervisor. She knew Tyrone’s caregiver.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said.

The next week he came to tutoring with his sidestep story: his friend brought gum to school. When next I arrived for duty, Tyrone was absent. I knew he’d not return. He dropped out of tutoring and so did I.

Was I right in reporting Tyrone’s story? I doubted myself for months. I switched my volunteering from one-on-one tutoring to leading groups of first graders in meditation. A supervisor caught me in the hall one evening and casually mentioned the gun was no tale.

Tyrone’s friend had walked into first grade with a loaded hand gun in his backpack.

How I Do Without Hate

As a reward for living through every day since November 8, 2016, I look to Haagen Dazs Dulce de Leche. Each day I try to do without hate. But I judge each day’s news as the worst thing I ever heard. Every. Single. Day. A bit of solace comes briefly through a pint of ice cream.

Doing without ice cream when the emotional alarms clang requires me to Hold myself tight for fear my limbs, my tongue, my head will whirly-gig out of control and irreparably damage my spirit-mind, not to mention my friendships. The Hold relaxes briefly with one simple pint. And then I do without until the wind gusts the whirly-gig back into motion.

Holding myself together generates an inward turn I take without looking both ways. I involuntarily drive straight to the core where I look for Jesus. From 2003-2011 I worked in Cook County government with a lively crew where the listening was easy. I belonged there, with cultures other than mine. God manifested himself through black and brown christs who spoke of Him: Have a Blest Day, Stay Prayerful, Jesus Loves You. Whenever the bosses above dumped demons into my serenity, Big Jim appeared and quietly laid a copy of a page from the Bible on my desk with a comforting Jesus quote circled in red. John 8:10 I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me won’t walk in darkness but will have the light of life.

The Catholic nuns gave me Jesus in grade school. He walked beside me like an imaginary floppy-eared bunny. As a newly-formed adult I moved from certainty about God and his Son to doubt. Preachers told me to welcome doubt, to throw certainty out with the th-6evening garbage, that doubting God strengthens faith. And it did. Until I started doing my own version of God. I built a periodic table of spiritual elements with blocks of God-info such as heaven and hell don’t exist and Jesus’ Resurrection is simply a symbol of renewed life. Trouble is, I silently scorned those who didn’t believe as I did. When I first met my co-workers I held a colonizing view of their beliefs. Over time my religious formulas fell in the trash heap. As slave descendants, they daily transformed their passed-down spiritual trauma into “I believe.”

Now in my own spiritual trauma I yearn for the comforting words of Big Jim and Shunice, for them to assure me Jesus loves us, all of us, including the remnants of the November 8, 2016 tragedy. I look for faith in my post-work world but Jesus is subtly tucked in for the night. My white-only community seems embarrassed, even ashamed to mention His name.

Well, I miss Him, miss talking about Him, miss Him talking to me through the kindness
and courage of my old work friends. A pint of ice cream doesn’t fill the void but it will do to keep the whirly-gig still until the Floppy-Eared Bunny wakes me in the morning.