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Suffering Children

A former football player held court after yoga yesterday morning, explaining his role as a private coach. He is a huge name, so strong in the arms that the instructor warned him against straining his leg muscles in the binding poses. “It’s not just the athletics: I try to be an advocate for the athletes.”

“I suppose that’s only for boys?” asked one of the mothers present.

“Well, I used to think that, but I am opening the program to girls. I realize that they need that advocacy, too. They need a strong father figure to help them believe in themselves.”

Down in Watts yesterday, surrounded by people that came barely to my solar plexus, those words echoed dissonantly in my mind.

I have sought opportunities to share the energies that I possess with the youth of my community. I gave a service at church one Sunday a couple of years ago, and the next week one of the children sought me out and sat on the floor next to me. His mother, a firm atheist, gave me an irritated look and dragged him back to his seat.

Or a more extreme example from seven years ago: I had taken my sons out on Easter to the mega-church down the freeway, pastored by a charismatic speaker. As I walked up the steps into the stadium seating, a young lady gave her heart to me. After the service, the boys enthused about the charismatic pastor, and urged me to fill out an information card. The next weekend, I was woken early on Saturday morning by two parents. The wife asked, “Excuse me, who is this?” before her husband demanded “We want to know where our daughter is.” He carried on until she broke in “He doesn’t know, dear.”

I still have my sons, but – whether they understand it as such or not – they have already learned to draw energy form the eternal source. They really don’t need me any more. So when I read in Unite 4 Good about the Red Eye program down in LA, I was open to the calling.

The prospect down on 114 Street was daunting. It is lined by split-level apartments, perhaps four hundred square feet on each floor, windows and doors heavily barred. A long block breaks the progress of the street about three blocks down from Compton. The program address was the recreation center. Across the street, a group of middle-schoolers were gathered around adults in azure t-shirts. The basketball court inside was occupied by high-schoolers and adults. I asked around about the Red Eye program, but those loitering at the entrance claimed no knowledge of it.

There was one other Caucasian present, a young woman hiding in the hallway. Next to her, a dark-skinned girl, almost her height, regarded me with reluctance. I struck up a conversation, discovering that we were all there for the same reason. When I asked for her name, the girl said “I don’t have one,” but then relented when I just shrugged and turned my attentions elsewhere, and offered “Dazzle.” We admired the antics of the four-year-old on his four-wheeled scooter (the kind that moves when the front wheel is turned).

Brenda, the young woman, identified the organizer Justin when he pulled up, and we all congregated in the gym. I asked about registration, and was pointed at Edna, who advised me that there was no agenda – our role was just to “pour loving” on the kids. I spent most of the next two hours on the basketball court, watching the older elementary-aged boys heave up shots from well outside their range, and trying to keep the bricks and outright air-balls from beaning the younger ones.

With some surprise, I did discover that my efforts in hot yoga were paying off: the bone spurs in my right elbow have subsided. I’m able to snap at the top of my release again. The first ten minutes on the floor were pretty embarrassing, though. My muscle balance is grossly different than when I last picked up a ball seven years ago, and my only form of exercise involves holding isometric poses. But things began to come back, and the boys were admiring, asking me, in order, whether I could dunk, how old I was, and how tall I was.

I was by far the oldest person on the floor. Most of the other volunteers were twenty-somethings.

The real connections began to develop as the adults and kids trickled out to the playground. I started giving advice to some of the kids regarding their shot mechanics. My focus was to get them to come in a little closer and get their muscles to work smoothly together. As the arc of their shots increased, the ball began to fall more softly on the rim, and bounce its way in instead of out. When I enthused “Look at that! That’s how it’s supposed to work!”, they opened up to me, one by one, and I’d feel this surge of energy move into them. They took it all in stride, just going back to their practice with extra enthusiasm.

Edna finally broke camp in the gym and brought everybody together up front for the walk to the store, along the refuse-lined sidewalk between the apartments. It was a local market, full of alcohol and snack foods. I was worried that I didn’t have any cash, but learned that Justin was covering the charge for snacks and drinks. A number of high-school boys and hookers joined the parade, but Justin didn’t mind. He even waved across the street to an older man in a wheel-chair, and sent his friend inside to get a drink for him.

As we stood in line, I noticed Dazzle braiding a friend’s corn rows into a pony-tail. She felt me looking at her, and glared back. I stepped closer and sympathized, “I know it’s hard to open our hearts, but we have to keep trying.” She got this vulnerable look on her face, and went back to her work.

I chugged down a bottle of 24-oz Gatorade, then squatted with my heels on the curb to meditate in support of the good will that was gathered. My little friend on the scooter stopped in front of me and shouted “You’re sleeping!” I opened my eyes to find him with a finger pointed accusingly at me.

“No. I’m meditating.”

“What are you meditating on?” Wow, this kid didn’t miss a beat.

“About good people.”

“Good people?” His tone suggested that it wasn’t a concept that he encountered very often.

“Yeah. Everybody here is a good person. I’m meditating to support that.”

Either satisfied or mystified, he walked off. I turned around to discover a three-year-old sucking the frosting out of his mini-bite cookies and tossing the crackers into the dirt. I advised: “Oh, you should eat the cracker, or we should throw them away. If we leave them there, animals will come, like rats.”

“I don’t want to talk to you.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t help it. It’s just the way the world is.”

He started chewing the cookie in his hand. His older sibling came by, mouth full of metal caps on his teeth. The little guy admitted, “My Mom has rats in her house.”

On the way back to the rec center, I saw their future on the sidewalk. A cluster of five thirty-year olds was gathered around a dice roll. The two contestants danced about with money in their fists, the roller throwing down or picking up bills after each toss. Energy bled from the scene and dissipated into the harsh light reflecting off the pale blue stucco.

Most of the volunteers and kids didn’t go back into the gym. I found a cluster of boys on the bleachers, and spent another fifteen minutes with them. Getting really hungry, I found Edna out front and said that I had to leave. She remarked that it looked like I had fun, and, not wanting to ask whether that was the point, I shared that it was good to pick up a basketball again, and talked about my bone spurs.

But as I drove away, I reflected that I had been allowed by the children to pour water into their thirsty spirits, and recognized what a blessing that had been to me.

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