Do you know what it means to free your mind?
To unbind the ties that rob you blind
To live out of love that hovers like doves
Or to bury your merry in a substance hug, a fluid drug.
It’s easy to shove away the day,
Which gave you an array of games to play
When to choose which you use and which you lose,
With whose tools you duel,
And which bitch would glitch and mark you the fool.
This makes me confused, and I find muse in abusing the booze.
And all these choices that soil our noises
When we moisten our voices
Toys with these games we play
When we smoke our pay, and abstain from the day.
FREE YOUR MIND.
Loosen yourself from the rules and the tools
That boast to host fools and make trash into jewels
But truly, who’ll be the fool and who the founder of the rules?
Even this rhyme is confined within a twine
That binds it’s hurdy-gurdy wording to make it sound so purty.
When perhaps it’s not the tools,
But the soul of this show that shines on the rhyme
With its incandescent glow…
Who could know??
That year I gained an education surpassed by none other. It was not my first of experiences with the underground arts, but it did yield a significant growth of skill. During that year I outgrew my britches as a pharmaceutical distributor. Throughout high school I was moving about an ounce or two of marijuana per week. Not enough to make any money, but enough to maintain my own habit. Finally out from under my parents’ roof, I grew more aspiration. Soon I was wheelin’ and dealin’ well beyond my previous ambitions. Every day I was walking around with a couple thousand dollars in my pocket while tucked away in some hidden crevice in my room would be a variety of party favors including marijuana, mushrooms, opium, LSD (both liquid and sheets), ecstasy, cocaine, crystal meth, ketamine (special K), angel dust, mescaline, and other assorted uppers, downers, and hallucinogenics. I was on top of my game. In addition, I was constantly living for the next party. Tight in underground circuits, I always knew the place to be: warehouses, factories, roller rinks, abandoned apartment buildings… you name it. I brought the party, I sold the party, I bought the party, I owned the party.
By some miracle, I survived that year without incident. No overdoses, no trouble with the law. I knew even then though that if I continued this lifestyle, things would not remain so invincible. Regardless, any thoughts of pursuing this routine any further were short lived. After the year was through it turned out I accomplished a lot less than I thought I had. I was making money so fast and frequently that I wasn’t budgeting it very well and just pissed it away. By the end of my second semester I had basically what I had begun with, and nothing more. Let me expand on “nothing more”. I went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, perhaps the finest state school Massachusetts has to offer, and I completed the year with two zero point zeros. Double doughnuts. Robert Parish. Considering the course my life had taken during that year, I should be thankful that that’s all that went wrong. But after my “Ten thousand dollar camp”, as my father so eloquently put it, my parents weren’t willing to help me get into college again. So I had to devise a strategy to fund the following year. This was when I discovered City Year.
City Year is an urban peace corps originally initiated in Boston, MA. As described by the City Year Organization: “An Action Tank for national service, City Year seeks to demonstrate, improve and promote the concept of national service as a means for building a stronger democracy. An ‘action tank’ is both a program and a ‘think tank’ – constantly combining theory and practice to advance new policy ideas, make programmatic breakthroughs, and bring about major changes in society.” From an insider’s perspective, it is something entirely different.
Upon enrollment to the program, I discovered something… to say the least, unexpected. This program, ranging age groups between seventeen and twenty-four, had a great deal of warm-hearted individuals volunteering because they legitimately wanted to make a difference, and to help people. However, it turned out that a larger percentage of the volunteers were not necessarily interested in helping anyone other than themselves. Many were opting for a year of service as an alternative to going to prison. This was not a “heal the world” mission; this meant “Save my own ass!” And even though I had no trouble with the law, I was in fact lumped in with these thugs as well: trying to save my own ass.
As it turned out, City Year accomplished both missions! Not only were we able to help clean up many communities in various ways, but also we grew into adults as well from the stupid, jacked-up-on-angst kids we were when we signed up. Over the course of the year, we tackled many tasks including domestic abuse counseling, teaching and mentoring, STD education, construction, renovation and maintenance, etc. I had personally taken part assistant teaching a Head Start program and 5th grade, as well as mentoring and supervising an after school program for grades K-3 and autistic children. On weekends I volunteered as a team leader for volunteer teens, ages 14-17. Activities included construction, renovation and maintenance of schools, churches, retirement homes, parks, playgrounds, and neighborhoods. I, along with my team, organized a carnival for children ages 3-5. I single handedly coordinated games for the winter camps, which were offered during the school break to help keep kids off the streets. I acted as team leader for the spring camp children as well, ages 8-10. I addition, I assisted with a variety of fund raising events.
Many of these tasks had unexpected complications along the way. My first team (of two) turned out to be a herd of loose cannons: Compulsive liars, racists, unhygienic slobs, violent chauvinists, and sloths. As it turned out, we were the least productive team in the corps when it came to fundraising. When you take into account that most teams had at least one rather wealthy team member and we were all straight po’, it really wasn’t that surprising that we were below par. However, in my opinion, that did not justify the repercussions.
At the end of every year there is a conference called CYZYGY where all the City Year corps across the country get together to share accomplishments, horror stories, sing and dance and shit like that. I can only assume what goes on at this event due to the fact that my team was denied access to it because we didn’t raise enough money. Please allow me to put it all out on the table for you to decide for yourself if this was really fair. We were working for City Year Monday through Friday 7:30AM to 5:15PM with a half hour lunch: 9 hours and 15 minutes a day. My commute from Marblehead was a two-hour commute, which meant my day started at 5:30AM and ended at 7:15PM. On weekends (Saturdays and Sundays) we led a group of volunteer teens from approximately 8:00AM to 4:00 or 5:00PM. We were not allowed to commit ourselves to any fundraising activities during working hours. And for all this service, we were paid $104.65 per week. Now I ask you: With what “personal time” were we expected to raise funds? Or here’s another question: How could we afford to donate from our own pockets even if we wanted to???
Long story short, we weren’t allowed to go. We were the first and last team to ever be denied access to CYZYGY. When the rest of the corps returned, the corps president gave us a sincere apology claiming this to be a grand mistake on their part, and promised that this would never happen again. As much as we appreciated the apology, it didn’t do much for our self-esteem. I mean we were busting our asses!! We were working harder than we’ve ever worked in our lives for less money than we’ve ever made, and this conference was suppose to be the big THANK YOU for all we’ve done! We had that taken away from us! Can any apology make up for that?? In this case, I’d actually say yes. Not that there’s any right way to make it up to us, but you need to understand the circumstances we were in. This is an urban peace corps. We were constantly being subjected to abused women and children, dilapidated apartments buildings, parks and playgrounds where children were not allowed to play due to the likely chance of a drive-by shooting… We were part of something much bigger than ourselves. Perhaps it’s something that has to be experienced to be truly appreciated, but when you know you’ve made a difference, no matter how small, it’s more than enough. What it all comes down to is that everybody makes mistakes, and what’s really important is what you learn from them. Yeah, it sucks that we had to be on the shit end of the stick for City Year to learn that lesson, but I’m happy to say it’s a mistake they’ll never make again.
It’s hard to avoid mistakes when the basis of the organization was centered on the mistakes of others. We learned things about the world that I wish I could go on pretending didn’t exist. Sometimes the difference between right and wrong is not as simple as black or white. There are a lot of gray areas in morality. For example, one of my many duties included teaching a head start program, ages three to five. The class had a number of kids from a diverse array of backgrounds. One in particular, a little girl named Cassandra, touched my heart in a way that I never could’ve anticipated. She was an adorable little girl, the sweetest angel. She was kind hearted, generous, cooperative. And please don’t think perversely of me, but I loved her immeasurably. She never fought, and if one of the other children instigated with her, she always did the right thing. More right than I would’ve thought to do. If a child stole her toy, for instance, she would simply demand it back and tell the child to get his/her own or ask to share. She wouldn’t hit, she wouldn’t tell the teacher. She’d handle it on her own. She was very strong.
One thing always caught me off guard about this child: during naptime, she would never take a nap. It was the strangest thing. She was told that it was naptime and that she couldn’t play with toys or color or read any books or anything. If she wasn’t going to nap, she still had to stay still and not make a sound. And that’s exactly what she did. Every single day, naptime would come and she would sit on her mat, legs crossed, eyes wide open, and wait for naptime to conclude. She never said a word. This always got to me. I just couldn’t comprehend what might be going through Cassandra’s mind that made her so uncomfortable napping. So one day I decided to see if I could help resolve the problem.
One afternoon, I went to her while she was sitting on her mat and asked if she’d like me to read her a story. She, being the well-mannered doll that she was, accepted and lay down on the mat. So I sat there, rubbing her back and reading a story, desperately trying to calm her in hopes that she may drift off into slumber. To no avail, she lay there, quiet as could be, eyes wide open the whole time. But I wasn’t going to give up so easily. I continued this routine, rubbing her back and reading a story to her every day. Eventually, the other kids started to get jealous, asking why I rub her back but never theirs. So I started rubbing all their backs, but I always tried to concentrate most of my attention on her. Then one day, it finally happened. I looked down, and her eyes were closed. She was fast asleep.
The next day I made no big deal of it: Just another day. Naptime came and I sat down next to her mat and started to read. Then she interrupted me.
“Hey, Brett. Guess what?” she said.
“I’m not afraid anymore!”
“I’m not afraid anymore! I can sleep now!”
It’s at this moment that I felt a warm glow around me. I had never felt so good in all my life. To put an image to it, this was for me the moment where the Grinch Who Stole Christmas’s heart grew three times it’s size and expanded to break the examination box it was viewed through. I felt glorious, victorious, triumphant and overjoyed… then it all came tumbling down.
“My mom hits me.”
Just like that. I didn’t know what to say.
At this point, dearest reader, yours truly is a shell of a man. That heart that grew beyond its frame just a moment before… now crumbled and dribbled through my body and out through my toes. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to think. I was utterly crushed. In fact, I had never been hurt by someone’s words more in my entire life. Right then I weighed my options. I wanted to hunt down and kill her mother. I wanted her mother to know the pain she’s caused her daughter. But that was obviously no solution. I wanted to grab her and run. I didn’t care about anything else at this moment. I just wanted to pick her up and run and run and run. I could take care of her. I could father her better than that. She was an absolute angel. A child every parent dreams of. And I could save her. But could I?
After much deliberation I came to the conclusion that telling the principal of the school as well as my team leader would be the best course of action. After all, if I tried to harm the girl’s mother in any way I’d obviously go to jail, which would leave Cassandra without a mother or me. Not a reasonable solution. And running away with her, making me a kidnapper and she a hostage, wouldn’t give either of us any piece of mind. It seemed to be the only thing I could do.
When I went into the principal’s office, my team leader at my side, I was sat down and asked to listen patiently. I expected them to tell me they were going to send the Department of Human Services to take her from her home. I expected them to tell me her mother would be forced into counseling. I expected… anything but what they actually said. They told me that there was nothing they could do. WHAT?!? I was up in arms! I was rampid! Sit down and listen patiently?! FUCK YOU!! How can you sit there and tell me there’s nothing you can do?! I prodded and pushed, struggling to understand how they could let this continue. I refused to believe there was nothing that could be done. The principal said it as calm as she could, competing with my tantrum.
“Brett, you may not understand this now, but we can’t act on the word of the child alone.”
“But this child you can!! I swear by her word! She is the sweetest angel. She would not lie about something like this!!”
“What you need to understand is that… children get hit. It’s not wrong for a parent to spank their child. Nearly all parents spank their children.”
“But I’m not talking about a little spanking here!! This girl doesn’t sleep during naptime because she’s so frightened of what goes on at home! This is not a matter of a little spanking!!”
I wanted to rip all their heads off. Why won’t they understand? Maybe I can still grab Cassandra and run.
“I know it’s hard to accept this, but she’s lucky she has a mother at all.”
This killed me. ‘She’s lucky to have a mother at all…’ How could she say that? It’s not lucky to be with a woman that makes her feel such fear in her own home! This is not right!!
“The best we can do now that this has been brought to our attention is keep an eye on her. If bruises start to show, or any other signs of abuse come to light, we can take action then. But we can’t act on the child’s word alone.”
I didn’t understand this. I couldn’t understand this! And I probably would never have grown to accept the fate of the situation if it weren’t for another situation that occurred a few months later.
My good friend Robbie, another corps member, was teaching at his team’s school on the other side of town. I believe his kids were in the third grade, which would make them right around eight years old: A dangerous age. He was very good with his kids. Every time I saw him he’d tell me how great they were, and how much he loved his job. One day, he was with his class during their physical education period, and one of the girls’ pants started falling down a little. He didn’t want to embarrass the girl, so he went to her and quietly said, “I see London, I see France.” She apparently hadn’t heard that one before. She shot him a puzzled look. He told her that her pants were coming down a little and she should pick them up. No harm, no foul, right? Yeah, that’s what he thought.
Later on that day, the girl went with two of her friends to the principal’s office. What they told the principal just goes to show how power can be manipulated so wickedly if it’s not respected.
Little Girl: “Our City Year sexually harassed me.”
Little Girl: “Our City Year sexually harassed me.”
Principal: “But how?? What exactly did he say??”
Little Girl: “First he said, ‘I see London, I see France,’ and then he said…”
…And this I quote:
Little Girl: “… and then – he – said – sexual – harassment.”
Principal: “And then he said sexual harassment…?”
Little Girl: “Yep. And then he said sexual harassment.”
It’s amazing the way children can manipulate the truth to suit their objectives. Robbie was questioned about the whole ordeal, and naturally he told them everything exactly as it happened. Perhaps they believed him, perhaps they didn’t. But under the circumstances, with the little girl getting her parents all ranting and raving about the whole event, something had to be done. And that something was my good friend Robbie being discharged from the corps. He was so close to finishing the year, and this little girl took it all away from him in one swift move. And ya know what else? I don’t think she even had anything against Robbie! I think she was just flexing her muscles. It’s a rare privilege for a child to have so much power. It’s not so surprising to see them want to exercise it.
It was in this, the loss of my good friend from the corps, that I finally understood what was meant that day in the principal’s office with regards to Cassandra. I knew what that darling girl told me was true and a serious matter. We all knew Robbie’s situation was preposterous. But the world we live in is an unjust one at times. You can’t always completely trust the word of a child. You can’t always trust the word of anybody for that matter. We simply need to do our best to try to read between the lines and play the cards we’re dealt.
The accomplishments of City Year eventually inspired President Bill Clinton’s development of Americorps, which now has many organizations spanning throughout the United States. For more information, visit http://www.cityyear.org/