In early November, tragedy struck the ECC and one of this column’s young people. Bill was killed on November 9, at an hour of the day most people would consider safe, blocks from the ECC Center and the Navy Yard metro station, where government workers and contractors hurried home for the weekend. In the midst of an argument with someone he knew, Bill was shot. With two weeks’ pay in his pocket and weekend plans on his mind, Bill died in an alley.
The ECC kids and their friends live in a tight-knit community where everyone knows whom they trust and whom they don’t. Violence happens all too often. Bill’s death is the third the ECC has suffered this year alone. Bill’s words in October—"There are only two things you can get out of being on these streets: death and drugs"—have hit close to home for everyone, and particularly for Sam. He was there when Bill said this, and lives across the street from the home behind where he died.
Four days after Bill’s death, Sam and I speak at the ECC induction ceremony. He is guarded and says little. Sam’s birthday is upon him and will pass, mercifully, without event. He’ll receive balloons from his girlfriend and six cards, including one from Elaya and me. But Bill’s death has left him feeling uncomfortable about talking.
One ECC member speaks to the family and friends attending the induction ceremony. Gemini (her name changed here to protect her identity) is 19, was locked up off and on during her high-school years, and has been writing poetry since the seventh grade. She’s attended a few poetry slams and starts snapping her fingers whenever she recalls the experience. The poem of hers that she read at the induction ceremony speaks to the feelings many ECC members share: “… Trying so hard to go on with life, but it’s like I’m stuck in the zone and all I can do is sleep, work, and think of how you’re gone … I look at life from a different angle. One thing I’m happy for is that you’re no longer living in the hell of these streets.”
Away from the riverside ECC Center, Elaya and Charles talk at length about the death of Bill, whom they knew, and about violence in their community. “It’s a shame to say it, but next month someone else will get killed,” Elaya says. “They’re [young men] dropping like flies. You can’t get out of the ‘hood by 20, you’re not making it out.”
“That’s why I’m gambling,” Charles tells us. “I’m trying to get out of the ’hood. What if I win the lottery?”
Elaya and I roll our eyes, but don’t respond directly. Charles continues to gamble, though he says he’s still holding the other addiction at bay. He’s wearing a new jacket, bought with his winnings. I suggest he deposit some of the winnings in a bank account.
“You can get shot if you have a bank account,” Elaya says, perhaps forgetting she has both checking and savings accounts.
“You can get shot just walking down the street,” Charles replies.
This is a show-stopping moment for us. Elaya returns to swirling the ice around in her soda. She’d asked for a Shirley Temple, but the Ruby Tuesday’s bartender lacked the grenadine. Since starting her restaurant job, Elaya has learned how to mix several drinks. She’s also developed great empathy for anyone working in a restaurant, and makes no request without saying “please” and “thank you.”
Early November has gone well for both Charles and Elaya. Elaya has not yet found the wished-for second job, but she is working through her SAT-prep book and has earned enough to acquire a cell phone and save for the home she wants. Charles, despite gambling, has “been filling out job applications like crazy.” He’s waiting to hear back from at least three organizations. He’s also visited the employment-services liaison at the ECC and has committed to taking the GED soon so she can help him locate even-better-paying work. When we say goodbye, Elaya is dancing a Redskins victory dance, which the restaurant manager frowns at, and Charles is asking me if I’d read his sample GED essays later in the week.
Whether it’s the horrible news of Bill’s death, pushing himself too far too quickly, or something else, Charles’s good streak soon comes to a crashing halt. He’s shared how upset Bill’s death has left him, so I call him later that week. He’s not in a good place and tells me, “I’m digging my own grave with this stuff.” We speak again the next morning. He wants to go take the practice GED exam, a prerequisite for taking the actual exam, but is scared to walk out the door. He owes money again, is three days late, and fears passing the lender. The amount is small and the lender familiar. But if Bill can get shot during an argument, perhaps Charles could suffer the same fate over $50.
Charles does make it through that day unscathed, but is still in that bad place when we see him briefly the following Sunday. He staggers and mutters in a way that draws stares from everyone who doesn’t know, like we do, that there is a sweet, book-loving young man somewhere inside. We haven’t heard from him since, but Charles has family trying to help him and has us cheering him on, in thought if not in person.
Back by the river, the ECC celebrates Thanksgiving. In recent weeks, the corps members have spent time on the river, laid a green roof, and begun a construction project at Oak Hill, a juvenile corrections facility. This Thanksgiving dinner is open to all ECC alumni and their families. Usually a high-spirited event, it begins quietly. The current ECC members keep to themselves, and, with Bill’s death just a few weeks in the past, the mood seems muted—until the dance contest begins.
The moment “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” begins to play, the corps members exchange looks of delight and begin dancing. Several move to the center of the room while us “grownups” cheer. Soon enough, the floor is yielded to a select few exceptional dancers. But whether they’re dancing or just swaying from the sidelines, each and every one of them sheds, for a few minutes at least, the guarded looks they’ve worn far too often recently.
As November winds down, Elaya finds a guardian angel, and Gemini and I, along with the only other female corps member, talk more by the river.
Elaya has shared her college plans with me, her wish to have her own place with her sister/best friend first and her refusal to take on debt for school. A dispatch reader has connected with her plight, having seen similar challenges growing up, and wants to help. When we three sit down, the conversation quickly turns to education and self-sufficiency.
“I can’t go [to college] right now. My financial situation, my living situation—these things hold me back right now,” Elaya tells us.
The dispatch reader, who knows the extent of loans and grant money available to young African-American women, won’t accept this answer. Why not community college for a year and then her dream school, Howard?
“I just want to get my apartment first. Why do y’all want me to go [to school] so bad?” she asks. “I don’t want any loans. They hassle you [if you don’t repay them].”
Everything Elaya has seen growing up validates her concern. The challenge lies in seeing her potential, how education sooner can help her faster, and how student loans differ from credit-card debt. But it will take more than one meeting with a guardian angel to change her mind.
“My biggest fear, when I’m walking down the street and I see homeless people asking for change, is being homeless,” she tells us. Her having relatives and friends to live with and a growing savings-account balance won’t detract from this fear for a long time. Perhaps the only thing that will ease the fear is renting an apartment and working two jobs now, rather than going to school first on a combination of loans and grants. But as we finish lunch, Elaya’s guardian angel offers to gather, for her, a list of schools and the names and numbers of financial-aid officers. He also offers to try and locate a computer for her. Without his help, navigating the maze of forms, applications, and information might quickly overwhelm her.
The moment we step outside, Elaya delivers the punch line of a story in a voice loud enough to turn heads. With a hug, a laugh, and that million-watt smile, she’s gone, though I get a text message minutes later. She’s already stopped in a nearby bookstore to apply for the much-wanted second job.
Gemini, in addition to writing poetry when she can and working in the ECC, is raising two sons. She joined the ECC in October after a breakthrough moment. “When I was applying for this computer school, the lady asked me, ‘So, what have you accomplished in life?’ And it hit me, and I just started crying, because I was like, ‘What have I accomplished in life?’ I can’t really say I’ve accomplished a lot besides having a child and getting my GED. But now I can say I’ve accomplished more.”
Since joining the ECC, Gemini has opened checking and savings accounts, participated in the Help the Homeless Walkathon, and acquired a reputation in the ECC for being very hardworking. Though two months’ employment may not seem like much, it can make a lifetime of difference for a 19-year-old. The other female ECC member, 18-year-old Little D (her name changed here to protect her identity), joined in September.
“[My friends] tell me they’re proud of me, that they never thought I would actually maintain a job. But I made a promise to myself that I don’t want to be like [them]—not that that’s a bad thing—but if we’re both doing nothing, where is that going to get us?” Little D explains.
Gemini chimes in. “She used to sleep all day … I really am proud of her, ‘cause she’s actually doing something. She gets up every morning by herself and she calls me, to make sure I’m awake.”
Bill’s picture hangs in the office where we’re talking. We look toward it whenever the conversation touches on street life, violence, or his death. I ask how they feel about protecting themselves, after Bill walked so unknowingly into such a horrible situation.
Gemini says, “You can’t. But you get that feeling.”
“That’s an instinct,” Little D adds.
“You don’t trust no one out here,” Gemini says.
Little D just shakes her head.