Two weeks ago I gave my students a choice: Should we learn about the nuclear threat in North Korea or the Mexican Drug Wars? They overwhelmingly choose the drug wars. They chose not only because of the allure of talking about marijuana in a class without being reprimanded, but I think also because it felt closer to home.
We read an article title “Surviving Juarez” (well written, but from the from the less-than reputable Buzzfeed), which was the world’s murder capital in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The article features a school that is eerily similar to my school—two hundred or so students, a new administration, an experiment in education, all housed within substandard portables. It was impossible not to draw connections between my students’s own lives and those living in Ciudad Juárez.
The article says “Juárez struggles to provide for its 1.5 million residents, and nowhere will its failings be more evident in the future than in schools and the next generation of young people, who came of age during the drug wars and don’t know much else. The system meant to look out for them is broken, but amazingly, they—and the adults charged with looking after them—are not.” When we got to that line, we paused and wrote. In the margins I had written the question “How is this school similar or different from your own?”
There were 2 minutes on the clock to write, I bent down to talk to a pair that weren’t working. We found the obvious similarities together, then I asked them the question that had been nagging me. New Orleans has been the murder capital of the United States as you’ve been growing up. Do you think you are like the kids in Juárez? How has it changed your life?
These two students are opposites—the quiet student who gets lost easily, the other was once called a “ticking time bomb” by another teacher—but their responses were similar. Yes, they are like the kids in Juárez. They have become used to the violence and it has defined much of their life.
After the timer rang, hands were raised and again the more apparent parallels between the schools were shared. I then called on the “time bomb” to explain our conversation. She got lost in her explanation, but the other kids knew where she was going. A sweet girl raised her hand, saying New Orleans has always been violent but it used to only be the adults. As she’s grown up, the people with guns have become younger and younger. The kids voiced their assent.
I revealed my ignorance (per usual) saying I couldn’t believe kids were shooting each other at age 12. “She don’t even know, they got kids 8 years old with guns.” I reeled imagining second graders with their small fingers wrapped around the metal of pistol.
Another kid raised his hand, joking, to explain the evolution of gun violence in New Orleans, starting with glocks ending with choppers. I made him restate his sentence using a vocab word. “The guns are being militarized.” Then the conversation became the free-for-all that always happens when the topic is interesting, moving from the fact that even skaters have guns now, to the idea that skaters are just a fad that weak rappers came up with and that y’alled be surfers if that was the next cool thing…
The moment was gone, but it had been mainly for me. The kids know what it is like to live in a city that is called the murder capital. They know what it means to call that place home.
We continued class and I explained the next assignment. They were to read and answer questions about the profiles of people who live in Juárez. They would describe the people, make connection between their lives and those in the article and predict what would happen next. The descriptors that comes up the most often have to do with courage. “He is brave because he fights for people’s rights” “She is a fighter because she works in a store and on the street to care for her child” “She is strong because she is going back to school.” They believe in these people on the other side of the border. They know what staying home means.