Life Without a Safety Net
My nine year old has really taken to basketball this year, so when his Y coach gave him a chance to practice and train with kids his age who are from the inner city — and so play a tougher, faster, game — he was eager to try. The other day he and his best friend were driven to the church, and then I followed to pick them up. The GPS left me at a church — but it was shuttered. I had no idea where they were. Then I saw someone in car in the parking lot. I knocked on her window, which she kept rolled up — this was a neighborhood where caution comes first, conversation second. I mouthed my question: "where do the kids play basketball?" — and she could see I was not so dangerous. She rolled down the window and told me to head over to the bingo parlor. And there they were.
At our Y every game and even most practices are attended by a smattering of parents or nannies, and the players, while mainly guys, always include a few girls — the bingo hall was purely male, all kids and coaches. At the Y, the coaches make sure to say something nice to each kid, tell a joke, hi five the little brother, remember each kid’s name, chat with the parents. Here the tone was military — my way or the highway — half the court were kids about my son’s age, half kids edging closer to teenage. When one of the older kids took a shot the coach didn’t like, he sent the whole group of them off running laps. When practice ended I heard him drilling home the same message over and over — tomorrow night your parents come with you, or you are off the team. There were quite a few men in their twenties or early thirties there guiding the boys, and as I listened to their barked commands I kept hearing the same message over and over: outside of here there is no safety net, nothing protects you on those streets. Here is a male world, a world of training, discipline, and skill. You do it right here or you are in free fall. There is no middle. I heard their anxious need to guide those kids across the tightrope, to give them a path to follow.
We so often hear about dads who do not support their kids, who leave their families. That is a real problem. But this was the exact reverse – men doing everything they could to give boys a way, a chance, a set of guidelines. At our Y the mood can be casual because life is good, kids feel safe. In the Bingo Hall there was nothing casual about the games. The experience reminded me of the Guys Read group in Florida — the boys who were so far behind in reading, and were given a way back through sports and male mentors. I was given a brief window into a world where you survive or you fall. And I admired those men who are there night after night to do what they can to see those boys across to the other side.