‘You Gotta Be Hard’

A Teacher Reflects on Kids and Gangs

By Greg Michie

Every street boy — and I was a street boy, so I know — looking at the society which has produced him, looking at the standards of that society which are not honored by anybody, looking at your churches and the government and the politicians, understands that this structure is operated for someone else’s benefit — not for his. And there’s no reason in it for him. If he is really cunning, really ruthless, really strong — and many of us are — he becomes a kind of criminal. He becomes a kind of criminal because that’s the only way he can live.

— James Baldwin
“A Talk to Teachers”
East LA student uses cap and hand signals to ”represent“ his gang affiliation.

My first encounter with gang activity as a teacher wasn’t, in retrospect, a very big deal. At the time, though, it seemed like a major showdown. It came about three weeks into my stint at a Chicago middle school that has since closed, known as Harold Washington. It was the last period of the day. As I went around the room to collect work from the students who had finished, I noticed some fresh pencil markings on the desk of a kid whose name, according to the computer-generated class roster, was Marvelous Antoine Jenkins. Marvelous sported his unique moniker both on a gold nameplate necklace and on an elaborately designed tattoo on his right forearm. It was this forearm he used to slide a folder over the marks I had seen peeking out. I stopped beside Marvelous and looked down at his folder, my eyebrows raised quizzically.

“What?” Marvelous said innocently.

“That’s what I want to know,” I answered. “What?”

I reached down and picked up the folder. What I saw underneath was an intricate, carefully shaded pencil sketch. It depicted a six-pointed star with the numeral six inside, two pitchforks, pointed upward, that slashed through the star’s middle section, and the letters GDN etched into its three upper points. I didn’t know what any of it meant. But I had seen enough of what I thought was gang graffiti on elevated trains and viaducts to suspect that Marvelous’s creation, despite its more artistic flourishes, was of the same genre.

My first thought was, “Man this kid can draw!” My second was, “How in the world did he sketch this whole thing out without me noticing until now?” The bell rang, reminding me that I was in school, and that I was the teacher, and that as the teacher I was expected to formulate some kind of response instead of standing there looking stupid. I told Marvelous he would have to stay behind to clean the desk.

I supervised as Marvelous removed his masterpiece. As he rubbed it out, I delivered a couple of bumbling lines about destroying school property and how he knew better than to draw something like that on his desk (I had to be vague since I didn’t know exactly what it was). Marvelous never once looked up at me. He just kept right on scrubbing. When he finished, and had blown the last bit of eraser dust onto the floor, I felt a strange sense of triumph come over me.

Me Against Them

Me against them. That was my attitude toward gangs when I started teaching seven years ago. I felt I was in direct competition with street gangs for the minds and souls of the children I taught. I realized that my outlook, as a rookie teacher recently transplanted from North Carolina, was shaped almost exclusively by the steady diet of gang-related horror stories I had been fed by the Chicago media. But that realization didn’t make the frequent reports of seemingly random violence any less frightening or the issue of dealing with gangs inside schools any easier to figure out.

I was aware enough of statistical realities to know that gangs were present to some degree in almost every public school in the city. But because students came to Harold Washington from all over the south and west sides of Chicago, the gang situation there was particularly problematic. Neighborhood elementary schools normally had to deal with only one or two gangs; at Harold Washington, at least four had sizable numbers. It was a potentially explosive situation, and Harold Washington’s administrative team made it clear to me that the best way to defuse it was to keep gang “representing” (which includes such things as hats and jackets with gang colors, hand signals, graffiti and verbal slogans) out of the school building altogether. So when Marvelous sketched out the Gangster Disciples’ logo on his desk top, I didn’t want to discuss it. I just wanted it gone. A month or so after the incident with Marvelous, I was on my assigned hall duty. The students’ lunch period had just ended and, as usual, the hallways were full of criss-crossing teenagers. I nodded and said hello as a hodgepodge of kids hurried past me. To my left, about 20 feet away, a group of male students began to gather around William, a tall boy whose black jeans and navy blue hoodie camouflaged his rich, blue-black skin. William stood in front of the boys’ bathroom, head slightly cocked. He gestured demonstratively toward two kids in front of him. I recognized the two boys as Marvelous and his ever-present shadow, Khan. Marvelous moved closer to William, almost touching his chest. Khan slid in beside him. As the taunts heated up and the boys’ voices raised, a crowd quickly closed in around them, partially blocking my view. I turned to see if any other teachers were watching.

The next thing I knew, the hallway was up for grabs. Punches flailed wildly as shouts of “GD Nation!” and “What up, folk!” mixed in with screams, scrambling feet and bodies ramming into lockers. Opposing gang members threw hand signs defiantly into the air. While most students fled the action, others ran toward it. I tried futilely to keep them away. It was impossible to tell what was going on, who was doing what, who was on which side of the brawl. Then, suddenly, the thunderous voice of Moses Green, an eighth-grade math teacher, who the kids called “Preacher,” rose above the din. “Marvelous Jenkins and Khantrell Davis, you better get up offa that boy!” The sea of onlookers parted at the sound of Moses Green’s booming bass tones, but the fight’s instigators continued to go at it. After a brief struggle Green managed to pull the boys apart, and then cornered all three against a locker, using his impeccably dressed six-foot-four frame as a blockade.

“I done told you fellas about representin’ in this school,” said the Preacher. “Now I can’t do a whole lot about what you do when you leave here, but I’m telling you all one last time, and I’m not just talking to these fellas, I’m talking to every one of you standing here.” He paused and glared at the crowd of students surrounding him. “Y’all better keep that gang mess outta this school! Do you follow me? Am I clear?” True to his nickname, Green delivered the lines with the punched cadences and fiery intensity of a spirited storefront evangelist. He was soon joined by the otherwise worthless school security guard, who helped cart all three boys downstairs. I tried to herd bystanders on to class. William, his shirt torn and blood running down his arm, pointed at Marvelous and Khan as he was led away. “Ya’ll think ya’ll hard!” he yelled. “You just a couple of busters! Ya’ll ain’t hard! Ya’ll ain’t no kinda hard!”

The day’s final two periods were unproductive. Most of the kids were juiced because of the fight, but I tried to downplay it and proceed as if nothing had happened. Snippets of conversations reached my ears — “BDs” this and “GDs” that and “Blackstones” something else. “Hey guys, it’s over!” I said angrily. “I don’t want to hear anything else about it. You heard what Mr. Green said. Leave that junk outside of school!” The kids disregarded my pleas and continued jabbering.

I usually stayed after school awhile to grade papers or plan for the next day, but the fight had left me distracted. As soon as the final bell rang, I threw a grammar book and several stacks of ungraded assignments into my bookbag, flipped off the light and headed down the hall. As I rounded a corner and approached Mr. Green’s room, I glanced up. The door was closed, but through the elongated rectangular pane of glass I could see four bodies, sitting in a close circle of chairs. Mr. Green, William, Marvelous and Khan. All much calmer. And though the Preacher’s eyes were every bit as intense as before, he wasn’t preaching anymore. Marvelous was talking. Moses Green listened.

‘He’ll Stick With You’

Moses Green grew up near Harold Washington School and still lived in a rehabbed greystone apartment building less than two miles away. He knew from experience many of the daunting challenges the kids at Harold Washington faced. Yet he believed in them just as fervently as his strict Church of God mother had believed in him. When I asked my students later that year to write about their most influential teacher, many of the kids wrote about the Preacher. “Mr. Green is the top teacher in the whole universe,” wrote Tyrone. “Once he gets started, he can’t stop no matter what. He will stay on your back and he will stick with you to the end, even though he will jack your slack.” Added Khan, “What makes Mr. Green different is that he tries to hold in his anger that other people give him. Other teachers would try to suspend you or kick you out, but he don’t.”

Perhaps more so than any faculty member at Harold Washington, Moses Green was adamant that gangs and all their manifestations be kept outside of school. His hallway sermonette the day of the fight made that clear. But unlike many of his cohorts, he was able, both intellectually and emotionally, to separate the institution of gangs from the human beings who found love, self-esteem and protection within their ranks. While he unequivocally rejected gang culture, he accepted the individuals who were wrapped up in it. He listened to them. He related to them as people. He didn’t see three gangbangers sitting in front of him that day after school. He saw William, Marvelous and Khan.

Gradually, I began to see them, too. I encouraged Marvelous and Khan to contribute artwork to the school newspaper. I made a conscious effort to involve them more in class, and to find time to talk with them at lunch or, occasionally, after school. As we became more comfortable around each other, they even began giving me informal lessons on the intricacies of gang signs, how to tell the “brothers” from the “folks” (Chicago’s two major gang alliances), and the history of the Gangster Disciples (which they classified not as a gang but as an organization. The GD, they claimed, stood for Growth and Development). My ignorance about gangs began to dissipate, and as it did, the whole thing seemed a bit less intimidating.

William, on the other hand, never really opened up to me on a personal level. On the days he came to school, which was about 60% of the time, he sat in the back of the class and rarely said a word, carefully maintaining his “hard” exterior. When he did speak, it was most often to provide commentary on the perceived immaturity or intellectual shortcomings of his classmates. If students became disruptive, William never joined in. He would watch the action from his post at the back of the room, as if he were much older and above it all.

Yet in spite of William’s reluctance to express himself in front of others, he never failed to turn in a composition assignment, and his writings unveiled a sensitivity and compassion that betrayed his gangster poses. He wrote the following narrative, for example, after his class had read Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis:”

The Man Who Turned into a Birdby William Thomas

Billy, who was a priest, had always wanted to fly in the sky to feel free. One day, on his way to the shopping market, he saw a bird whose wings were hurt. Billy picked the bird up and took it home.

After a while, the bird was well, but Billy had decided that he wanted to keep it. He went to church and a spirit came to him and said, “If you want to be a bird and fly free, let the bird go. If you were a bird, you would want to fly free.”

So Billy went home and let the bird free. The bird went in circles like he was happy and thankful. The spirit came back late that night and Billy prayed. “I want to be able to beat my wings and just fly,” Billy said. “I would be so happy.”

The spirit came back the next morning as a big ball of light, and while Billy was asleep, the spirit turned him into a bird. The man (well, bird now) flew in the air with joy, flying fast. Then he came and found the other bird he saved and they talked. Billy said, “I feel so free and happy. I just feel like the world is in my hands.”

As the two birds went west, the other bird vanished. Billy woke up with sweat on his face. He stretched and said, “I feel wonderful. I feel like I can fly.”

It read like allegory to me, but William denied it. “It’s just a story, man,” he said when I asked him if Billy’s flight was symbolic. “I just get these visions, and I write ’em down. That’s all.””Well, you’re very good at it,” I told him. “You’ve got some powerful visions.””Thanks,” William said, tugging at his earring. He let a smile go, barely, then coolly surveyed the room to make sure no one had seen.

Student alienation and isolation are prime factors in joining a gang.

Taking Action

The Preacher Green approach served me well for the rest of that year at Harold Washington, and I took it with me when I began teaching at Seward Elementary, a school in a predominantly Mexican-American section of the city, the following September. There I found fewer kids who were already gang members, but just as many who were feeling the heat of intimidation. Peter Romo’s plight was typical. One afternoon as I was signing out for the day, I saw Peter sitting in Seward’s main office, waiting to go in and see the principal. He told me he had gotten in a fight in the library with a fellow seventh grader whom Peter said was trying to get him to “turn,” to become a Latin Jester. “I can’t go out on my own block without worryin’ about who might be creepin’ up behind me,” explained Peter, who had been known as Pedro until a string of non-Spanish-speaking teachers Anglicized his name. All Peter really wanted to do, he told me, was play basketball, but at the park he was constantly hassled by gang members.

I heard many stories like Peter’s during that first year at Seward, and tried to counsel kids individually and lend support where I could. But I avoided making what seemed to be the logical next step, which was taking the potentially volatile issue of gangs and putting it to some productive use in the classroom. My reason for not doing so was different at Seward than it had been at Harold Washington, however. Because of the presence of rival gangs at Harold Washington, the topic had seemed too sensitive, too easily detonated. It was a can of worms I had simply been afraid to open. At Seward there was only one gang, the Latin Jesters (and their overshadowed female counterparts, the Lady Jesters), so the tension of warring factions that clouded the air at Harold Washington wasn’t a factor.

Instead, I feared that by broaching the subject of gangs in general and the Jesters in particular, by acknowledging their existence in class, I would in turn be giving them exposure — free advertising, so to speak. Yet the more time I spent in the school’s neighborhood, Back of the Yards — visiting families, shooting basketball with kids, walking the shopping strip, eating in the local taquerias — and the more I listened to the people who lived there, the more clearly I came to understand that, disheartening as it was, the Jesters’ “marketing” already had the place saturated. While it was true that the majority of the neighborhood’s residents had no direct ties to the gang, the Jester’s presence was inescapable, and affected everyone in the community in one way or another.

I began trying to create opportunities in class for my students to express their feelings about growing up around — or within — the gang culture. The first of these efforts came in the fall of my second year at Seward. I asked the kids in one of my seventh-grade language arts pull-out groups to think about specific things they liked and disliked in their community. Things that made them proud and things that frightened them. Things that brought joy, sorrow, or something in between. We talked it over for a period, and I assigned them two paragraphs for homework: one about something positive they saw in their neighborhood, one about something negative. I told them we would use their writings as the script for a video we would produce about Back of the Yards.

The kids were excited about the idea, which translated into all eight of them doing their homework assignment. I listened as the students read their paragraphs aloud. “I like the public library because it’s calm and peaceful,” read Mirna. “It has computers, books, and magazines, and you can work quietly.” Her friend Lupita said, “My favorite thing about the neighborhood is the church because it is nice and big. It brings back a lot of memories. I like how the bells ring on Sunday morning.” Other students mentioned the swing set at the park, houses specially decorated for Halloween, and the newly constructed shopping center where they could “go and look at things.” The most unique offering came from Luis Bravo, who wrote: “One positive thing is that at the park there are wood chips all around the swings, so that when kids play and slip and fall, they won’t get hurt because the wood chips are there.” Wood chips. Outsiders like me either overlooked them or took them for granted. But not Luis.

While the kids’ views on the neighborhood’s good qualities showed their individuality, they spoke almost in unison when it came to citing a negative element. Seven of the eight wrote about either gangs or gang graffiti. That Friday I arranged to keep the kids for a double period and we went out to videotape footage to use with their written narrations. We walked around the neighborhood and, one by one, the kids chose and taped images to visually represent what they had written. Luis was the last to use the camera. He got a close-up shot of the wood chips and then zoomed in tight on a garage door spraypainted with the Jesters’ omnipresent logo. Satisfied with his shots, Luis replaced the lens cap and we began walking through an alley back to school. “That was cool, Mr. Michie,” he said. “We should come outside every day.”

Going out every day wasn’t practical, but more and more I tried to bring what was going on outside in to class. One of the best ways to do this, I discovered, was through videotaped discussion forums, in which representatives from each upper-grade classroom were invited to share their experiences, air their concerns, and debate their views on a given topic. Edited versions of the discussions were then shared with entire classrooms for viewing and, it was hoped, further debate. In one of our gang forums, a dozen or so seventh- and eighth-graders sat in a semicircle of mismatched chairs. Several kids had been lamenting the violence that the Latin Jesters brought to the neighborhood when Ernesto, whose four older siblings were known to be affiliated with the Jesters, broke into the discussion for the first time.

“If another gang comes into this neighborhood and starts shooting at the Jesters, what are they supposed to do?” Ernesto asked the group. “Are they supposed to let ’em just shoot at ’em? I wouldn’t let ’em do that.””And when does it stop?” I asked, an unnecessary adult intrusion.

“One gang will start it, and it’ll never stop until they feel like it’s done with,” Ernesto responded. “It just keeps going round and round and round.”

“That’s what creates all the problems in the neighborhood — the gang,” offered Leonardo, checking for Ernesto’s reaction out of the corner of his eye. “They’re the ones that bring in the guns and the drugs, and they encourage all the kids to join in.”

“Do you think the police are really dealing with the gang’s activities?” asked Sandra, one of the student moderators.

“No!” several kids blurted out immediately.

“Well, some are and some aren’t,” clarified Lorena, whose father owns a store in the neighborhood. “Some are trying to help the neighborhood, but some are scared because they think one of the gang members might do something to them. A lot of the police officers are afraid of the gangs.”

“Yeah,” agreed Gladys. “Right here, there’s gangbangers outside all the time! The police just pass by. They don’t do anything! Nothing!”

“What do you want them to do?” Sandra asked.

Gladys looked down at a piece of paper she had been repeatedly folding in half, doubling it over into smaller and smaller squares. “I don’t know,” she said almost inaudibly.

‘Dear Mr. Mayor’

That spring, I assigned my media studies classes the task of writing to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Many kids were skeptical.

“So every one of us is gonna write a letter?” Carmela asked.

“That’s right. All of you,” I replied.

“And we’re supposed to tell to him what we think he should be doing to help our neighborhood?”


“And you’re gonna send them all, or just certain ones?” she wondered.

“Every one,” I said.

“And you really think Mayor Daley’s gonna read them?” Carmela asked a lot of questions.

“I don’t know. But the important thing is that you speak up,” I said, feeling myself slipping into a sermonic mode. “If you don’t speak up, he’ll definitely never know how you feel.”

“He’s probably busy,” Carmela sighed. “Maybe he’ll read a couple of them and then the others he’ll just say, ‘Oh, they probably all said the same thing.'”

“Or he may have someone else read them for him,” I told the class. “I’m sure he has someone on his staff who reads his mail.”

“That’s their job?” Carmela asked, her upper lip curled in disbelief.

“Well, that’s not all they do. But that’s part of it. They read the mail and let the mayor know what the people are saying.”

“What if it was something personal like a love letter or something?” A few giggles bubbled up around the room.

“No, they just read his business mail,” I said.

“Well, they better read mine,” said Carmela as she wrote the date and her return address on her paper. I sent her letter, along with forty-six others, the next week.

Dear Mr. Mayor:

Hi, my name is Carmela Lozada. I am 12 years old and live in the Back of the Yards community. I have a dog and cat which fought at first, but not anymore. I have a very big family: my mom and dad, five sisters, and five brothers.

I am really concerned about the gangs and the violence in my neighborhood because it is horrible. I live on the street where all the gangbangers hang out. They smoke marijuana and all the smoke comes into my house. It stinks. We call the police, but they don’t come until about an hour later when the guys are already gone. That isn’t right, because then they think we’re liars.

My older brothers can’t come visit me any more, because then the gangbangers start fighting with them. They think my brothers are gang-related, which they are not.

I hope you can do something about this, because I really want to start seeing my family again.


Carmela Lozada

Several weeks later, a letter arrived in my mailbox from the Mayor’s Office. It was not the generic “Dear Kids” letter I had feared we might receive. Surprisingly, the response was specifically tailored to the concerns my students had raised. But by the time it got to Seward, the kids who had written the original letters were not in my class anymore. The quarter had ended and I had fresh groups of kids who, since they hadn’t been involved in the process of writing the letters, weren’t the least bit interested in Mayor Daley’s thoughts. I displayed the mayor’s correspondence anyway, on a bulletin board next to some of the kids’ letters, but it was an anticlimactic event, to say the least. Even Carmela was unimpressed when she came in to check it out. The mayor’s signature caused much more of a stir with her than anything he had to say.

“Damn,” Carmela exclaimed, “he writes nasty!” Then, after a closer examination, she added. “And he’s the mayor?”

Perhaps the most powerful statements my students have made on gangs have come in the form of dramatic video productions, which often grow out of open-ended scripting assignments, such as “a scene on a streetcorner” or “a conversation among family members.” The gang theme has been a recurring one no matter what the setting. In “His Choice,” written by a trio of eighth-graders, a kid who has just moved into a new neighborhood meets with intimidation from Freddy, a local gang member.”If you’re in the gang,” Freddy boasts, “everything’s gonna be cool for you. You’ll have lots of friends. Little kids’ll look up to you. You could walk around the ‘hood by yourself and nobody messes with you.” It sounds like a good pitch until Sonia enters and tells the new kid how her brother joined Freddy’s gang and was subsequently killed in a drive-by. Ultimately, the kid decides not to join the gang, but Freddy’s fate is more uncertain. At the end of the video, we hear an off-screen shouting match between Freddy and another teen, who screams at Freddy, “This is for my brother!” The sound of gunshots ends the piece.

What’s the Point?

As one of my students always used to ask me, “What’s the point?” The videos, the letters, the discussion forums, the dramatic narratives — have they raised awareness? Or have they, in the end, just been school assignments? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. There has been no significant decrease in gang activity in the neighborhood. The Jesters continue to add new members to their ranks. The same kids who portray gangbangers in our videos are sometimes playing the roles for real a short time later. Victoria, a girl who spoke out passionately against gang violence in one of our discussions, became a Lady Jester the next year. Gerardo, who played Freddy in His Choice, is now a Jester, too. So, too, for Luis Bravo, who as a seventh-grader had helped me see wood chips for the first time.

But this should not be terribly surprising. And it certainly doesn’t mean that our efforts have been in vain, or that kids who become gang members are too dumb to see the writing on the wall. In many cases, they are too intelligent and aware not to see it. As they grow into their teens, many gradually wake up to the realization that, for them, the so-called American Dream is no more real than John Henry’s hammer or Cinderella’s glass slipper. It is a Gringo myth, a textbook fable, a flat-out lie. As kids come to internalize this, and feel their options narrowing, the gang culture around them looms larger and larger. So when they finally join, it is not so much a choice as a surrender. Yet many kids in Back of the Yards — the majority, in fact — continue to steadfastly resist the temptation of gang involvement. And whereas kids often fall into gangs almost unconsciously, they stay out of them only by choice. But it isn’t easy. “It’s messed up out there,” Antonio Soto, a former student, told me recently, reflecting on the three years that had passed since he’d left Seward. “Everybody’s trying to be hard. If they see you’re soft, they’ll try to take advantage of you. Jack you up, steal stuff from you. So it’s like you got no choice. You gotta be hard, too.” It is the same philosophy schools and teachers often fall back on when trying to deal with students who are in gangs. We respond to kids who have become hardened by trying to be even harder ourselves.

But I try to remember the distinction Moses Green made clear. I have learned that it is possible to take a hard-line stance on the institution of gangs without turning my back on kids who are gang members. Acknowledging them and giving them opportunities to thoughtfully reflect on their experiences in the classroom may help them become equipped to make better choices. It can enable them to see alternative realities, to envision other futures for themselves. It can present possibilities for growth, for change — a process that Father Bruce Wellems, a neighborhood priest who has worked extensively with the Latin Jesters, understands well. “Everybody wants a rule book on how to relate to gangbangers,” Wellems says. “But nobody wants to relate to them. We have to take them where they are and try to educate them, so they become conscious of the choices they’re making. And once they’re at that level, then they can make a choice either for the gang or against it. We really have to understand these kids as human people who have basic needs that are not being answered. The temptation is always to look at these guys and just to put everything in black and white. But when is anything black and white? It just isn’t.”

Greg Michie teaches media studies and video production at a public elementary school on the southwest side of Chicago. This article is excerpted from “Holler If You Hear Me,” his recently completed manuscript about his first years as a teacher. Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect people’s identities.