“Let’s start by completing this reading and writing survey,” I suggested to the tall, lanky young man who had recently been placed in my care. Uncertain as to whether or not he had any literacy skills, I offered to read over the lists with him. “We’ll place a check mark beside any or all that apply.”
“Sure thing, Mrs. E.” Mark gave me that charming smile that he was famous for. Although his criminal record was longer than his academic one, Mark was a very likeable young man.
“Which of the following do you read? Magazines?”
“Sometimes. Motorcycle ones mostly.”
“Good.” I wrote that down.
“Not so much. I’d rather watch it on t.v.”
“I’d have to agree. Letters? This must be an old list….” I started to apologize.
“Oh no! I read letters all the time.”
“You do?” I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d received a letter. “Who writes to you?”
“My boy, Ace.”
“Yeah, he’s serving time for assault.”
“Do you write back to him?”
“Of course. We’re tight, Ace and me. He’s like a brother. I’ve known Ace since we was kids.”
Good to know. Mark has literacy skills. I checked off letters under the writing column.
Hovering over the journal box, I asked if he ever wrote a diary or journal.
“I’d like to,” Mark said, “but who would ever want to read what I have to write.”
It was the opening I needed to hook Mark into learning. I was charged with helping Mark obtain a credit in English and Math. Math was easy, as he liked the subject and demonstrated a natural ability; so English was the challenge. We decided that Mark would read a memoir and I would construct relevant writing exercises that would form the basis for Mark’s own personal blog / journal. Mark and I were both excited about the prospect.
What ensued were many hours of heart to heart talks. Mark, the youngest child of a broken home, had been left to his own devices at an early age. He stop attending school in the seventh grade and quickly began to wander with a rough crowd. He confessed that he really did want to turn his life around, but that he didn’t know how. I advised him that while change was possible it would be hard, and might mean a purging of relationships.
“My boys are my family, Mrs. E.” he explained. “Whenever I’ve needed anything, they are the ones I turn to.”
I understood, but I also knew that if Mark was to truly make changes, his friends would have to go.
“Ace is isn’t really his name, you know,” Mark said to me one day out of the blue. “It’s his gang handle. I have one too.”
“You know, Mark, if you sat your gang down, individually, and asked them whether or not they’d like to change their lives, I suspect half would say they did and the other half would be sociopaths.”
“You are right about that, Mrs. E. Take Ace for instance. He comes from a good home; his mom is a professional, and quite successful. His dad is never around, which was part of the problem, but his stepdad’s a good head. He just got off on the wrong foot because of his colour.”
As Mark continued to talk, Ace’s story began to sound all too familiar.
“Wait a minute, Mark. I think I know Ace…or his mother at least.”
He told me Ace’s name and my heart sunk. “I knew Ace as a young man. I knew his mother very well, and admire her deeply. Next time you write to Ace, you let him know I’m thinking about him, and his family.”
I left school that day with a very heavy heart, my last conversation with Ace’s mother echoing through my mind.
“I don’t know what to do,” she cried into the phone. “The police just won’t leave him alone. It’s racial profiling.”
I couldn’t believe what she was saying to me. I didn’t want to. Our city, in these times, capable of racial profiling. That didn’t happen in Canada, did it?
I didn’t hear from my dear friend again after that conversation. Our lives took on different directions, and even though I dropped her a line years later, she didn’t respond. I was beginning to understand why. Her baby was in jail doing time for assault.
“He didn’t do it, Mrs. E!” Mark had tried to reassure me.
Somehow, I believed him. But the story continues to haunt me all the same. Could I have done something different?
Did I let my friend down in her time of need because of my own ignorance.
One thing I know for certain: the world is made up of many interconnecting circles, and sooner or later, what we’ve left behind will catch up with us in one way or another.
Learn from me: Take care of each other in the moment. You don’t know how far-reaching your actions will be.