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Sunday, April 14, 2013

I'm Real: Kendrick Lamar and How We Have To Be There

"You love him, you love them, you love her
You love so much, you love when love hurts
You love a good hand whenever the card dealt
But what love got to do with it when you don't love yourself?"

Maybe it's because Kendrick Lamar is going to be giving a concert here on Wednesday, but his song, "Real," has been resonating with me in particular for a couple of weeks.

In my last blog, I wrote about some of my high school kids taking a trip to court and seeing someone they recognized pleading guilty to armed robbery, and a little bit about how kids are so much more willing to make self-destructive decisions when they don't care about themselves.

"You love streets, you love running, ducking police
You love your hood, might even love it to death
But what love got to do with it when you don't love yourself?"

I was driving some high school kids home one night when this song came on. The car got pretty quiet. At the end of it, one girl said, "I don't like that song. It's sad."

It's sad because it's real.

Empty kids are living lives without purpose and without a care for the long-term because these kids don't care about themselves.

How is a kid supposed to learn that she is worthwhile, that she has something to offer? When the kid is young, it comes from the encouragement of others. It comes from someone telling the kid she did a good job, that she can dream, that the stars in the sky are within her reach.

Lots of kids get that support already from teachers, even if they don't get it at home. The problem emerges when the positive encouragement, whatever the source, is outweighed by the negative, when the kid starts to think that he can't achieve.
Maybe a parent doesn't care about the cute sticker the kid got for a perfect spelling test. Maybe the kid has been traumatized by violence. Maybe he looks up to older kids who have nothing but bad things to say about school.

That's when the kid comes to class and stops talking. He's asked to read but he mumbles or covers his face with the book. Even if he actually knows the answer, he can't give it because he doesn't think he could possibly know the answer. Everyone else is better than him. Why should he talk?
Or maybe he doesn't have the answer. There's no way he could learn by being a part of the class.
Or maybe he doesn't care. School can't help him.

There are too many influences that prey on this lack of confidence. When confidence can't come from inside, the search for something outside to replace it begins.
Escape: Drugs, Sex, Dropping out
Responsibility: Joining a gang, Having a child
Power: Gun, Money, Respect

Life is defined by what the kid does have, or at least thinks is easier to have - Money, Power, Respect - rather than who the kid actually is.

This isn't limited to kids in bad situations either. Plenty of adults, even successful ones, lack confidence in themselves, try to define themselves by things from the outside they think can fill the void within. Maybe it's alcohol, maybe it's submitting to a bad relationship, maybe it's compulsively buying the best the world can offer. The environment adults are in still provides plenty of opportunities to get drawn into an underworld.

But when this same emptiness draws a kid down, they more often can't realize what's happening, that their lives may never get started, that it's all over before it even began.

In school, the farther a kid falls into the crack, the more the portion of her life spent in the positive environment can push her down. The troublemaker is rarely trusted to make her own choices about what's right and wrong. The kid becomes an outsider, continues to feel inadequate, hears others do something she can't, doesn't understand if something is wrong with her, withdraws from the positive world because she feels unworthy to be in it. The older these kids get, the more withdrawn they can be.

They can't have positive confidence because they don't love themselves. So making a bad choice - to skip school, to get into a fight, to drop out, to commit a crime - is just a reflection of how empty they feel, how there's nothing in them worth preserving, how they're fed up with a system that hasn't fulfilled their needs.

"But what love got to do with it when I don't love myself
To the point I should hate everything I do love?
Should I hate living my life inside the club?
Should I hate her for watching me for that reason?
Should I hate him for telling me that I'm season?
Should I hate them for telling me ball out?
Should I hate street credibility I'm talking about?
Hating all money, power, respect in my will?
Or hating the fact none of that s*** make me real?"

That's why kids who emerge from these backgrounds with confidence in themselves can end up being so powerful. They've had to deal with so much they don't have a choice but to be strong.
But more often the kid gets drawn farther and farther down until a life of low personal expectations becomes the norm.

Positive conversation might be the most important act the community can give to a kid. Sometimes a kid just needs to know someone is there for them when all hell is breaking loose.

I had a kindergartener in a science class. We were building bridges out of popsicle sticks, so there was plenty of time for me to talk to the kids about what was going on in their lives. One kid came in pretty sleepy.

"Were you up late watching TV?"
[Shakes his head.]
"Had dinner late?"
[Shakes his head.]
"Just didn't get much sleep?"
[Nods his head.]

The rule of three, and then let the openness sink in for a few minutes so the kid can understand on his own that he can be open too. And as the kid was putting glue on a stick, he started talking.

"I got to visit my dad last night."
"That sounds great."
"Yeah. He had to go to the court because he shot someone in the head."

The kid went on to talk about what his dad did, never once pausing in making his bridge. The other kids in the class didn't flinch. They were all in kindergarten too.

It might take minutes, hours, days, even weeks with a kid to get them to open up, but that's what needs to happen. Teachers are great at knowing which kids need that help, but our classes and schools are not designed to help all of these kids. Time and patience is often at a premium in classrooms of 30 kids, all at different levels, all supposed to be at the same level, all the teacher's responsibility. There are plenty of changes we can make to a classroom, but that's a post for a different day.

What we all can do right now is give a kid some of our time. We can be the ones who take a kid to lunch on a Saturday, text them on Monday to make sure they're studying for a test on Tuesday, tweet them when they notice they're going through a hard time, visit their school when they present their work, are there for them when their love for themselves wanes.

All we have to do is be there.

Kendrick Lamar's album has made him popular because it has a real message. You may have heard some of the remixed versions on the radio, but the popularization through alteration is cheapening that message for a society that isn't willing to deal with the hard truth of our internal emptiness.
The album tells a story about a boy who grew up in the midst of negativity, who witnessed violence, who emerges questioning his life, or really the lack of it.

Not every kid has the strength to question life like that. We can't question it for them, but we can help them find the strength to do it. All we have to do is be there.

And then maybe the kid will go to school and feel more confident, or at least talk to you about what's bugging her. Maybe she'll take your advice about talking to her teacher.
Maybe she'll go home and know that she is worthwhile, that all the negativity around her isn't. Maybe she'll see that her dream is worth dreaming, that her work today is for a real tomorrow.
And then maybe she'll look in the mirror and be "proud to say yeah, I'm real, I'm real, I'm really really real."

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