Keep Your Head Up

“We ain’t meant to survive, ’cause it’s a setup

And even though you’re fed up

Huh, ya gotta keep your head up”

Keep Ya Head Up – Tupac

I had a profoundly affecting experience yesterday that I cannot shake. There’s nothing to be done but feel it and wait for the intensity to subside. It feels so heavy and disappointing and sad, but there’s also some deep love and light woven in.

I spent most of yesterday at the DC jail. I was invited by a good friend to attend an event where the residents were presenting the group project pitches they had been working on for the past eight weeks. The topic? Curbing gun violence in this city. There were 14 groups and all of us guests, about 60 or 70 of us, were randomly assigned a group number and we traveled around to each of the 14 tables. We listened to their pitches, reviewed their presentation materials, and asked questions. Think science fair in a gym only, instead of scrawny and adorable middle schoolers, these students are all ages, shapes, and sizes in bright orange jumpsuits.

The experience itself was awesome. Truly. My cheeks hurt so much from smiling hours after I had passed back out through security and found my way to my car, where all of my electronics and everything except my photo ID were waiting for me. I have never gone through so much security and it was kind of intense for a first-timer. Listening to the residents though was thought-provoking, inspiring, enlightening, and humbling. From teenagers to old men, I was able to look into the eyes of each man as he shared his piece of the presentation and I was struck by how little we, as humans, ever bother to look beyond a label. Whether it is liberal or republican, disabled or athlete, CEO or felon, we rarely put the time, effort, or grace into having a simple conversation with those whose labels flash “other” in our minds like an alarm. I was interested to observe that while not everyone was nervous, most were visibly anxious and there were a lot of shaky voices and hands from men that are probably used to being quite intimidating. It was so humanizing to listen to these phenomenal, practical, uniquely informed ideas on how to effect change in violent crime and youth involvement in this city. When would you ever get to have conversations like that?! I could have done it all day. I wanted to just keep learning and soaking in all the ideas and wondering how, who, and where these ideas might get funding or get off the ground in a tangible way. There were folks from all over the city in attendance, including the White House, and I saw a lot of people taking notes and swapping business cards. I genuinely hope that something, anything, comes of the rich and innovative ideas we heard yesterday.

Despite how moving all of that was, it was not even close to the most impactful part of the day. Before things got started, guests were just milling about, reading the one-pagers we had been given for each of the project groups. There was a brief overview, a picture of the residents who worked on each project, and a list of their names. A few pages in, one name jumped out at me. Let’s call him Bryant Morris — common enough name but one man in the picture on that page looked too much like a Bryant Morris from my past. A student that I knew at the first high school where I was a counselor. For a moment, I thought, “that cannot be my Bryant Morris.” I looked around the gymnasium where probably 50 men in electric orange jumpsuits were scattered. It took less than a second for me to see him. I swear to you, I nearly hit my knees. Disbelief and sadness took my breath away and I almost believed he locked eyes with me from all the way across that gym — even though we were wearing masks and probably haven’t seen each other in 10 years. I had to keep looking away because I didn’t want to believe it. He was SO much bigger than I remember. Full sleeves of tattoos covering arms that looked more like tree trunks. But those eyes? Those eyes were the same as the ones on the baby face of a boy who is inextricably and heartbreakingly linked to one of the worst days of my life.

In 2008, two of my former students were in a car accident one night. They had just graduated the year before and one was my counseling aide and sat in my office every single day with her insanely infectious smile. The accident was bad enough that they needed to fly them to Maryland Shock Trauma. Except the helicopter crashed and killed everyone on board, except one. My aide was killed as were the two flight crew and the local EMT who had boarded to assist during transport. After so, so many surgeries, the surviving student lost her leg and had a lot of scars, both physical and emotional, but she survived.

The crash upended our community. The morning after, when the news broke, we knew two of our students were involved but we didn’t know who. I had seniors that year and my entire caseload of 262 faces went through my mind. I created my first ever Facebook account just to monitor how my kids were doing. It was an unfathomable tragedy and no one was okay. I wasn’t okay. I didn’t know who that first morning but I didn’t want it to be any of the faces I kept seeing in my mind.

I never dreamed they were alumni. I certainly never dreamed it was those two girls, my girls. In another giant fuck you, the EMT who perished was the mother of Bryant Morris, one of our football stars and a universally popular young man with students and staff.

He was out of school for nearly two weeks and when he returned he wasn’t the smiling, fun-loving, always joking kid that he was. Sure, he was still a standout athlete and I was there in the stands when he won the state titles that year in football, indoor, and outdoor track. He just lost his sparkle for a long time. He was (is) the sweetest boy. It makes my chest ache so deeply to remember those days right after the crash — the sickening sadness and profound sense of shock and loss — but also the weeks after when one student was still in the hospital facing a steep uphill battle, everyone else was dead, and Bryant was the one we all watched. It wasn’t really fair. It just seemed like, if we could get him to be okay, we would all be okay too.

There have been so many tragedies since then. So many students lost. So much trauma. So many things I wish I didn’t have to live through, that they didn’t have to live through. At some point, I feel like I became numb to anything new. A few years ago, one of my students, an Honors and AP student, shot another of my boys in the head. Two lives were lost forever that afternoon. I suppose I peripherally felt shock and sadness but, honestly? I felt nothing. It was just one more awful thing in a never-ending string of awful things in the lives of the students I serve.

I learned through all of those awful things the myriad ways that different people experience them, process them, and move forward at whatever pace they can. By graduation Bryant seemed to be doing fine. He got his full scholarship for football and, as the NCAA Coordinator for the entire district, I was there on signing day with tears of joy in my eyes. It felt like a win for all of us.

The last time I saw him, I’m not sure how many years ago exactly but at least 7 or 8, it was on my street. I was driving toward Howard University and Bryant was on a bicycle. The last I knew, he was out west at college where he got his scholarship so it was wild seeing him here, but he told me that he had just transferred to Howard and was the starting corner. He seemed really proud and happy and settled. We talked for a while in the street and then he put his hand on my driver’s side door with the window open and I pulled him up the big hill toward Howard on his bike, smiling as big as ever. The next time I saw him was yesterday, in an orange jumpsuit, in prison.

My group yesterday, of course, was assigned to start at his group’s table and I was not ready. I wasn’t processing fast enough. I wanted to find a quiet corner and have a good, selfish cry before I found some freaking strength. I wasn’t even sure if he would remember me, let alone recognize me with my mask on. It seemed like he was intentionally avoiding eye contact with me when he did his part of the presentation though and, when I heard his voice, there was no way I could deny that the man in front of me was that same sweet boy. It broke my fucking heart into a thousand pieces. After the presentation, he picked up a stack of their flyers to pass out to my group and he started with me. He looked me straight in the eye and I said, “Thank you, Bryant. Do you remember me?” He called me by name and said, “Of course I remember you. I don’t know why or how you are here today, but thank you for coming. Can I talk to you later?”

And so I went around to all the other tables to listen and found him after. I asked if I could give him a hug … and then I gave him about six. We could only chat for a few minutes before we were shuffled to the next building but it was enough to know he’s still that boy, with the same heart, the same bouyancy, the same drive. He told me he’s been in for 24 months now and thinks he’ll be out in eight more. He’s gotten his LLC while inside and is pursuing entrepreneurship so he can “do things the right way” when he gets out. We talked about his offense(s), why the money on the street was too good, and how he just got caught up. He asked what I do now and, when I told him, he said, “Do you all hire felons?” It sobered me up real quick and all the joy I was feeling from reconnecting with an old student in those brief moments evaporated with a big smack of reality. I gave him my email and my same old Pittsburgh number, to which he said with a classic Bryant smile, “Of course. Same as always.”

Then I came home last night and had myself a little breakdown. First I’ve cried in what feels like months but, oof, the floodgates broke wide open. There are kids that you know are never going to fully escape their circumstances. And it is not just the ones that you know are in gangs, or come to school with a gunshot wound, or already wear an ankle bracelet. There are also kids who are barely getting through or that could be doing more than passing but they hate school and, whatever the case, they aren’t going to continue school after high school, if they even graduate. You know those kids aren’t going to make it, despite everyone’s best efforts to help them onto a viable pathway. But then there are other kids that you know, with every fiber of your being, are going to be something. Bryant Morris was one of the latter. Ten years ago, I would have bet you 1000:1 that he would be well on his way to CEO of something by now.

I don’t understand why life is this way. The injustice of the cards you are dealt and all that. I just do not and cannot understand it. There are so many days and circumstances that make it feel like a fucking setup.

Like Pac says, you’ve got to keep your head up. And I would say to that, maybe tomorrow. Today, I’m deep in my feelings and thinking about a boy who already lost everything when he was 15. I have known him for literally half of his life and I cannot help but feel like maybe we didn’t try hard enough to make sure that sweet, funny, beautiful boy was really and truly okay.

I need to do some research over the next eight months to figure out how to actually help now.

Author: tigerlilyvegas

Former high school counselor, left of center, lover of grilled cheese, black coffee & IPAs. Equal affinity for turquoise water & white sands and the quiet, calm, green & wooded heaven that is western PA. Passionate about equity, justice, and requited love. And crucifying cheaters.

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