If you google ‘how fear works’ you will get some links as your first hit, describing fear as a chemical reaction in the brain that starts with a stress stimulus and leads to a racing heart, fast breathing, fight-or-flight responses, and so on and so forth. But anyone who has experienced fear, especially those who live in its constant shadow whose experience I am writing about today, know that in actuality, in reality, it’s much more than that.
Violence itself needs no introduction. It’s vicious, its destructive, and most of the time unnecessary to the productive and peaceful balance of this earth. But it is also very real. I knew about the serious nature of youth violence in areas such as Chicago because it was closer to where I grew up and I had seen it talked about in the news more. The Southside. And I knew people who lived there, and I even used it as a means to talk to my kids in Tulsa over the summer about modern day forms of genocide. In a way it very much is a form of genocide, youth killing off youth in sprays of guns and knives, without thinking about who will be left to tell their story if they take each other out one by one. And I knew such violence existed in Miami where I would be working but it isn’t until I encountered it, the deep fear it invites into an environment, that I had a deeper understanding of a long-held belief that the threat of violence is as strong as violence itself. I learned that on an afternoon of work when whispers of people who wanted to come and shoot the school up permeated throughout the building. By last block my students were frightened and on the edge of their seat, calling home in worried voices asking for a ride home. I tried to calm them down, tried to go on with the lesson while telling them that this is what those who would enact violence want. They want people to stop living their life, they want people to run around looking behind their shoulder for the next shot. And it’s hard to get that point across when the shootings are very real. Dead youth and code reds do not lie. Violence is escalating in the community. But I want my students to understand why it is that people want such rumors to spread. Just looking around at the frenzy and the fact that hundreds of parents came to pick up their children that day, showed me how much the gangs rely on fear to control the actions of those around them. In fact, they want people to give up. That day I ended up having just a discussion with our chairs in a circle about violence and how people use fear as a controlling tool on others. It was a good conversation to have at the time and an important space for my students to share their feelings, even though many were taken out by parents as the discussion continued. But what it all came down to was that they were all frightened that even though they could be trying to do something with their life, it could easily be ended by being a child in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. A child OF the ‘wrong’ neighborhood, is probably how best to describe it because at the end of the day when I go home to the safe, family-oriented community of North Beach, this is the home of my students. And yes there are many wonderful and historically important elements of that community, but its being overshadowed daily by quicksand brought on by poverty, low education, and violence. My students think the only way to make it is to get out, and never look back. I’m afraid they might not feel as close to their community because to be one with it, in their opinion, might mean to die with it.
So while violence itself is a strong, destructive force, the threat of violence paralyzes and separates. It paralyzes individuals from going about their daily lives, making meaning of it and being willing to take chances. And it separates people from being grounded within an environment and a place to call home that they believe will not bury them six feet under. In order to develop a place, though, into a positive representation of what it means to overcome risks with resilience and embracing the ugly parts of your community in order to reshape it into something else, it takes jumping across the chasm of threats of violence that want to separate you from it.
I think there’s a lot to be sifted through here. And a lot that schools within these communities can do to address all of this.