Image I had worked another shift at the East Harlem Center. The part time position coaching teens armored in a reality impenetrable to “old school” words of hope and promises that they could succeed if they put their minds to it was what I found, despite a college degree and a diversified resume. I had no energy to motivate anyone. Yet twice a week, three hours a night, I did my best to put aside my life and try not to lie to young men like Biggie. A twenty year old about to max out of the center, who told me, “I’m tryna live straight. Do the up and up. No disrespect, but if it don’t work, shu’ nuf I’m strappin on my piece an’ hustlin’. I gotta do what I gotta do.” 

Biggie played the clown. He dragged into the club, pants sagging down, and rolled his heavy body from room to room, on the sidelines, the ever present heckler. Now here I come, yet one more do gooder who knew nothing of him yet obligated to convince him to join a corporate workplace program.

“Do I look like I’m gonna be up in somebody’s white office. Hell nah. You need to fin’ me somethin’ at Micky D’s maybe.”

Round peg. Square hole.

Of course, not all were so hardened. There were teens like Donnell and Caitlin who impressed me with their doggedness. They didn’t buy the happily-ever-after mission statements either. They had a realism that served them where they were. In the face of program cuts at the center, drastic staff turn over, parents burnt out by life, gangs, drugs and violence in their homes and on every corner to and from the center they showed up night after night. They led groups, participated in internships, worked part time while raising their own little ones. Still it was a mixed bag with more Biggies than we dared admit. Our reports to funders showcased the Donnells and Caitlins but made little mention of the Biggies.

It’s for all the Biggies that I write.