One thing I like about volunteering with RBO is the chance to meet up with kids from all different parts of Oakland. This year I was paired up with S, a kid from the Fruitvale district attending a local charter school just a few blocks from me.
S is a soft kid, a quiet kid. He isn’t quick to volunteer himself, so our runs consist of me talking a lot, or asking him questions, and him politely answering them.
Our worlds are different – I grew up in wealthy Saratoga, where our biggest concerns were about our GPAs, studying for the SATs, or when we’d inherit our parents’ cars. S grew up in the hood, where everybody around him is gang-affiliated. Every Saturday morning at seven he jumps on two buses and comes out to our workouts on the south end of the lake by himself.
His best friend is Z, a slender Mexican-American kid like S, who became fast friends at their current school. Z has already developed the qualities of a young ringleader – brash, handsome, funny, a friend of trouble, and still hesitant and vulnerable behind his persona in a way that thirteen-year olds are.
Our workouts together would consist of the two friends running together, and Z volunteering uninvited facts about his friend: “Did you know that S is the handsomest guy at school. He’s a player.”
S: (chuckles to himself)
Z: “Him and me stopped being friends because he was seeing this girl, and I told him that she was trouble but he wouldn’t listen to me.”
Me: “Oh yeah? What’s she like?”
We talk about her at length.
Me: “So what’s the deal with you guys now? You’re still friends right?”
Z: “Yeah, I went away and wrote him a letter and said I still wanted to be friends.”
Two weeks later S reports back to me: I’ve broken up with that girl, Z was right.
And then he tells me he’s dating someone else now, her friend. I laugh.
What’s it like when everyone around you is living a grit-filled life? When cop cars and sirens and gunshots are your common reality?
“Me and my sister are close” S says, “but she protects me” – her sister was jumped into a gang two years ago (I am surprised to learn she is only 14).
They are close, but so far apart. S has resolved to keep his head up and out of gangs, but his sister is deep in gang life. They’re close, they fight, yet they love each other. He tells a story of nearly getting jumped himself, but for the protests of his sister, was let go.
“How do you stay out of the gang scene?” I ask him.
He shrugs. “They kind of know you’re so-and-so’s sister, and won’t bother you.”
On one of our runs, Z and S were running together when S blurts out, “Z once made me swallow a staple”.
“What? How did that happen?” I ask.
“He dared me.”
Z’s eyes twinkle.
“It got stuck in my throat and I got scared and I had to go to the hospital”, S says.
“The worst part was at the hospital, when I had to talk to his mom.” Z shudders. “She’s hella scary.”
S just laughs.
On our Oakland Half Marathon run this year, S and I were running past the West Oakland entrance to the Port, and I was talking to him about all the things we could see if we went over the bridge – Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, the Crucible, Brown Sugar Kitchen. “Have you seen those things before?” I ask. He responds no.
A half mile passes in silence, and then he volunteers, “There’s so many things I haven’t seen… it’s tough to see past all the violence.”
We run a bit more in silence.
S and I run a steady, paced half marathon together, and you can see his spirits rise as he pushes through his pain to get across the finish line, tired and happy. Z is somewhere behind us, having cramped up but he finishes too. And I’m overcome with pride for S and what he’s fighting for in his life.
(Tired and happy.)