Saturday, April 15, 2006

Something to Hold Onto

“My one true love is my nine.”
-“Tom” 14 year old gang member.

This kid tried to convince me that he was so hardcore all of the time. He would make comments like that around me and especially around his peers. He tried so hard to be “hard” that it was almost funny.

But really it was sad.

This same gang member who proclaimed that he could only trust his instincts and the weapon in his hand, would sleep at night with his little stuffed animal. I know this because he was in the juvenile facility where I counseled with gang members and other juveniles.

After I got to know “Tom” I learned that like so many others his upbringing was a harsh one. Shootings in the small town where he lived went unreported on the local news. I guess that “part of town” wasn’t considered newsworthy enough.

His relationship with his mother was more like that of a brother / sister relationship. And that was on a good day.

His father or course…nonexistent. He grew up with no one and nothing to hold onto.

He was angry and rightfully so. He found what he could not find at home, in a gang. He found a sense of family. But like trying to extinguish a fire with a squirt gun the gang just didn’t satisfy.

Like so many others, Tom, put on a front. He wore a mask. A mask of toughness that was only betrayed by the little stuffed animal in his bed.

I lost count of how many “hardcore” gang members I worked with who slept with these same kinds of dolls.

He was a child trying to act like a man. Or rather what he thought a man should be. He was afraid and trying to act fearless. Dying inside but trying to act like he didn’t care.

I will never know exactly what that little stuffed animal represented to Tom. Maybe it reminded him of a time when he was a little boy and things weren’t so difficult. Maybe it reminded him of how he had always wanted someone to hold him at night and make him feel secure.

I cannot be sure what the symbolism was with that doll. But I know that at least at night it gave him what even the gang could not. It gave him what his parents would not. It gave him what he would not let anyone else get close enough to offer. A sense of peace. A sense of hope. Something to hold onto besides anger, violence, and fear. If only that little doll could have held him back.

Tom never let anyone get too close. Probably because it was easier to pretend to be tough than it was to take the chance of allowing someone to hurt him again. Better to act like a monster than allow someone the chance to abandon him again. Better to hide behind the mask of Gangsterism than to reveal to anyone that he felt alone and vulnerable. Just like any kid clinging to a stuffed animal at night.

The gang gave him something to hold onto. When no one else would reach out to him. If we are not there to hold onto our kids…

Someone else will be.