Geoffrey Canada Reflects on Working Toward Peace
stand in front of [my martial arts class], looking unhappy
and displeased. Everyone wonders who is out of place or
not standing up straight. This is part of my act. Finally
I begin class and then I'm lost in the teaching. I'm trying
to bring magic into the lives of these kids. To bring a
sense of wonder and amazement. I can feel the students losing
themselves and focusing on me. They are finally mine. I
have them all to myself. I have crowded all the bad things
out of their minds. The test they failed, the father who
won't come by to see them, the dinner that won't be on the
stove when they get home. I've pushed it all away by force
of will and magic.
This is my time and I know all the tricks. I yell, I scream,
I fly through the air with the greatest of ease. I take
my black belt students and I slam them on the floor and
they pop up like those weighted weeble dolls that can't
stay down. I throw them through the air as if they were
feathers, and they land and roll and are back up unhurt
and unafraid. The new students can't believe their eyes.
And they begin to believe in magic again.
And by the time the class is ending their eyes are wide
with amazement and respect, and they look at me differently.
And I line them up and I talk to them. I talk to them about
values, about violence, about hope. I try to build within
each one a reservoir of strength that they can draw from
as they face the countless tribulations small and large
that poor children face every day. And I try to convince
each one that I know their true value, their worth as human
beings, their special gift that God gave to them. And I
hope they will make it to the next class with something
left in that reservoir for me to add to week by week. It
is from that reservoir that they will draw the strength
to resist the drugs, the guns, the violence.
When class ends I dress, and now things are different.
I speak to everyone. Students come up to shake hands and
we bow in greeting. I am back to being Geoff to them, their
friend. As a group of us walk up 108th Street together I
scan the street for signs of danger. This, after all, is
a neighborhood where more than ten adolescents have been
killed by guns this year alone. I call one of the youngest
students over to me. He is only five and comes to class
with his older brother. I see that his jacket is open and
I stoop down to zip it up.
The jacket is old and beat-up, probably belonged to his
brother last year. The zipper is broken. He believes I can
fix it. Why not? After watching me in class he believes
that I can do anything. His face is filled with anticipation.
It's cold outside and the long blocks he has to walk in
the cold will seem shorter if I fix his jacket. I try to
fix the zipper. I can't. Instead, I show him how to use
one hand to hold his jacket closed close around his neck.
I readjust his hand several times so he understands that
there is a certain way to do it that meets with my approval.
This is also part of the act-all of the attention to detail
keeps him from feeling ashamed. I notice his nose is running
and take out the package of tissues that I keep in my pocket
for just this purpose and wipe his nose. He doesn't object
like most five-year-olds. He loves the care and concern.
As I watch him cross the street with his brothers and
friends, holding his jacket closed with his hand, the spell
is broken for me. No more magic. Just little five-year-olds
in raggedy jackets that won't close, trying to stay warm
on a cold night. I scribble a note to myself to remember
to find a way to get some jackets. Winter is coming.
My two black belts usually walk with me after class and
stay with me until I catch a cab. I tell them it's not necessary,
but they are there to make sure I get home all right. What
a world. So dangerous that children feel that a third-degree
black belt needs an escort to get home safely. The sad thing
is, with all the guns and drugs in this community, they
know I'm no safer than anyone else.
This community, like many across this country, is not
safe for children and they usually walk home at night filled
with fear and apprehension. But when I walk with them after
class they are carefree, like children ought to be. They
have no fear. They believe that if anything happens they'll
be safe because I'm there. I'll fly through the air and
with my magic karate I'll dispatch whatever evil threatens
them. When these children see me standing on the corner
watching them walk into their buildings they believe what
children used to believe, that there are adults who can
protect them. And because of that belief they see me as
larger than life, like Superman or Batman. And I let them
believe this even if my older black belts and I know different.
Because in a world that is so cold and so harsh, children
need heroes. Heroes give hope, and if these children have
no hope they will have no future. And so I play the role
of hero for them even if I have to resort to cheap tricks
And if I could get the mayors, and the governors, and
the president to look into the eyes of the five-year-olds
of this nation, dressed in old raggedy clothes, whose zippers
are broken but whose dreams are still alive, they would
know what I know-that children need people to fight for
them. To stand with them on the most dangerous streets,
in the dirtiest hallways, in their darkest hours. We as
a country have been too willing to take from our weakest
when times get hard. People who allow this to happen must
be educated, must be challenged, must be turned around.
If we are to save our children then we must become people
they will look up to. Children need heroes now more than
ever because the poor children of this nation live with
monsters every day. Monsters deprive them of heat in the
winter, they don't fix their sinks and toilets, they let
garbage pile up in their hallways, they kick them out of
their homes, they beat them, shoot them, stab them-sometimes
to death-they rape their bodies and their minds. Sometimes
they lurk under the stairs. They scuttle around in the dark;
you hear them in the walls gnawing, squeaking, occasionally
biting a little finger.
We have failed our children. They live in a world where
danger lurks all around them and their playgrounds are filled
with broken glass, crack vials, and sudden death. And the
stuff of our nightmares when
we were children is the common reality for children today.
Monsters are out there and claiming children in record numbers.
And so we must stand up and be visible heroes, fighting
for our children. I want people to understand the crisis
that our children face and I want people to act.
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