In the halls of Downtown High, where I teach, I watch daily as urban guerrillas carry on the business of life. These are the kids trying to survive streamed neighbourhoods and streamed schools, often by means of guns and drugs, while school boards and governments look the other way.
There's been a lot of discussion lately of the need for black-focused schools, and though this wouldn't necessarily be my first choice, I'd like to introduce you to the reason it comes up.
Meet 17-year-old Jamal Kendall (not his real name, of course). Cool and collected, he acts like a 25-year-old businessman. He doesn't look like the average businessman, and his business the selling of drugs isn't the conventional kind. It is convenient: he takes his work with him to school and at the end of the day brings it back to a corner near his home.
He's a member of the growing ranks of urban fighters. Unlike those guerrillas who fought for the pride of their nations, they fight for individual interests: money, power and respect.
Jamal is a respected leader of his loosely defined gang and enforces his rules on his own corner, both in his neighbourhood and at the main entrance to the school. His tough demeanour easily discourages trespassers. And I suspect he packs a gun when needed. He's created his own world, and he is its king.
He was born and is growing up in a housing project. His father's from the oldest black community in Canada, the destroyed Africville area of Halifax, and his mother's from the Caribbean. Jamal has elaborate tactics for avoiding talking about his father, who's been absent from his life. His mother sometimes holds two jobs. Her son admires her courage, hard work and love for him and his siblings.
However, her work keeps her away from home most of the time. At 12, Jamal turned from latchkey kid to a fixture on the drugs- and prostitution-infested streets, along with a horde of other neighbourhood kids.
His often empty home propelled him out to where the action was. There, he and his friends took abuse from older youths. Older drug dealers who watched him complete his transactions from a safe distance used him as a mule for very little compensation.
Many times, without knowing it, he found himself in the middle of turf wars. As a result, the police took notice of him at an early age.
His school, Downtown High (not its real name), a microcosm of Toronto, is potentially a model for how the whole world could live together. People from almost every region of every continent are represented here.
Students are streamed into the gifted, academic, ESL, applied or partial rotary (special ed) track. It's at the discretion of administrators and guidance counsellors whether students enter the academic (university-bound) or applied stream. At Downtown, all guidance counsellors and administrators are white females.
Once students are assigned a level, they may at their own request be moved down a stream, but moving up is impossible unless they're willing to spend years catching up. There is no second chance for late bloomers or those who want to change course.
Jamal is in the applied level, and a good example of what's wrong with this system. The course is too easy for him, and he's always bored. He completes in-class assignments in a fraction of the time it takes most others, and does a good job.
Part of the problem is that streaming is done on the basis of achievement rather than potential, which isn't easy to measure. A few years ago the principal of Downtown convened a meeting of administrators, guidance councillors and teachers to discuss the streaming of specific grade 10 students, many of them black. There were two racial minority teachers in that gathering, myself included.
One teacher suggested that any student who gets less than an average mark of 65 per cent be streamed to the applied level. I quickly raised the issue that this would mean students who were bright but hadn't applied themselves would wrongly end up in a lower level.
My comment was met with silence. Then, as if nothing had been said, the criterion the other teacher had proposed was adopted. Of course, it's no easy matter to re-jig the entire system.
Sometimes Jamal feels he's in enemy territory. Some of his teachers presented the upheavals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa as "tribal" conflicts, while they spoke of "ethnic conflicts" in the former Yugoslavia. Jamal asked me what was behind this difference in language.
I am Jamal's first black teacher. This doesn't surprise me. Out of 92 teachers at Downtown, only three are black. If there were 10, perhaps five would speak up and make administrators aware that differential treatment exists. Don't get me wrong, Jamal likes and respects most of his teachers. However, the fact that he doesn't see himself represented among the staff can only be puzzling.
The issue that may be closest to Jamal's heart is the wearing of do rags and wave caps. They were banned inside the school together with baseball caps and other head covers. Jamal asked me to advocate against the ban. He felt they had religious/cultural value, like the head covers worn by Jews, Zoroastrians, Moslems and Sikhs. In the end, I was unable to help him, and they were outlawed, leaving him angrier and more defiant than before.
Jamal has been in and out of jail many times. The most serious charge so far was armed robbery. After four weeks in jail, he was let out on bail. He came back to school clean-cut, beefed up and well exercised. "You look good," I commented on his first day back.
"Why not? Three meals a day, good gym facilities I'd go back any time," he said. It was a stark reminder that prison meals and facilities are superior to those at home.
Jamal once raised the issue of suspensions and expulsions when we were discussing police profiling of black men. He wondered why a black student who was accused of stealing a bike (nothing was proven) got expelled, while a white student who defecated during class to win a $50 bet got away with a suspension.
A white student who sprayed staff and students with pepper spray got away with a suspension, and no police report or arrest was made. The list goes on and on.
This period of Jamal's life is payback time for all the earlier abuses, putdowns and letdowns. He holds the neighbourhood, the police and the school responsible for his and his mother's sufferings.
Short of a miracle, no amount of intervention will easily turn his life around. Bringing in a parade of basketball stars as positive role models won't make much difference. Such well-intentioned programs won't help Jamal and his mother deal with the root cause of their situation: poverty. Neither will breakfast and lunch programs.
Now and then, after a counting of bodies, the media, with their short attention span, swoop down on the housing projects with a "Turn your back on crime" message. But when all is said and done, the fact is there is no substitute for easy drug money.
Let's assume Jamal wants to change his life. Would he be able to get the intensive academic tutoring needed to cope with a community college or a transitional year at a university? Would he get funding? The fact is, as I come to the end of writing this, I learn Jamal has dropped out of school.
Kids like him are aware that society sees them as ticking time bombs. The sad part is that it may be true.