Diane and the kids and I took advantage of a recent “no tutoring” week and went to our neighborhood park one evening. Eliza and Psalter split time on their new tricycle (consignment sales are wonderful!), with me guiding them via a long handle attached to the back, and Diane pulled the others in our wagon. A very Norman Rockwell-esque picture indeed. To get to the park we had to pass several drug dealers, certainly not a part of Rockwell’s repertoire, and upon arrival, I took Jacob up to the basketball court to watch some of the pickup ball. He already really loves basketball on TV and loves the Nerf hoop on his door, and to see basketball live was really exciting for him. A couple of the boys playing come to our tutoring program, but being middle school-ers, they could barely bring themselves to acknowledge me. All of the boys playing were black, except for one short, pudgy white kid with glasses, and I knew that when the game began, he was not going to be invited to play. He seemed to know it to, and seemed resigned to his position as a person on the fringe. My heart went out to him, because in this neighborhood, I imagine he doesn’t fit in a good bit of the time at the park, and every kid needs and wants friends.
Walking back to the swingsets, Diane and the girls had befriended three small children playing there; the oldest seemed to be about 4, and the others looked to be about 3 and 2. There was not a parent or an adult or even an older sibling within 50 yards of them – the only person I could find in their general vicinity who might have been in charge was someone sitting in a car on the street. They gravitated towards Diane as she played with them, swung them on the swings, and helped them on the monkey bars. Eliza and the older girl had races to the picnic table and back and swung together on the swings. Life is so simple sometimes for little children, common ground so easy to find.
As I put Jacob in one of the baby swings, I noticed a curse word written on it in black marker, and as I began to swing him, I noticed many more things written on the green metal swing set. I looked around and there were more messages and words written on the slide, on the climbing wall, on the monkey bars. Hurtful, destructive words, yet void of any creativity or purpose. The same phrases written over and over, probably having no idea what they meant. Calling out particular girls, uplifting the Southside (whatever that is, because I don’t think Glenwood is the Southside of Greensboro), a small tribute to the Crips (a “C” with an upward arrow beside it and a “B” with a downward arrow) – not enough to be gang tags, but just enough to show how kids in Glenwood long to belong and to have street cred.
And I wanted to cry. I was angry that people would write all over our beautiful new playground equipment (less than a year old), and write such hurtful things, things that I wouldn’t want my children to read. I was angry at the disrespect for property, for people, for themselves. I felt hopelessness begin to settle on me like a blanket – how do you get permanent marker off of plastic, and even if you did, wouldn’t they just write again? I didn’t want to be at the park anymore. I wasn’t afraid. I just wondered what could be done.
The contrasts of beauty and relationship (my family playing together and welcoming the children there; a lone daffodil growing beside a trash-littered creek; my love for the guys playing basketball) with ugliness and brokenness (a kid left out because he didn’t fit the mold; defeating words grafittied on the equipment; young men with no better options than selling drugs and hanging on a street corner; children longing to be parented) were striking and in that moment, ugliness overwhelmed the beauty.