Lessons From a Robbery on Christmas Day By M. Patricia Fern ndez Kelly Consider the irony. It was Christmas Day, 1994, a little after high noon. The previous night I had been celebrating with friends and neighbors amid holiday trimmings. The spectacle of candles and lush poinsettias lingered as I left church the next day after mass. Moments later, in my office, I learned that I was to receive the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Community Service, a singular distinction. Afterward, with the letter about the award still in hand, I entered a bank in my neighborhood to make a deposit. Then terror struck. I was assaulted by two men in their 20s who, abruptly, took more than $200 in cash and my purse with all its contents. When one was arrested, two days later, crack paraphernalia and a large kitchen knife were found in his possession. Things could have been worse. Yet what had begun as a joyful occasion had been stamped with a new meaning. More sickening than the loss of my property was the realization that the incident entailed nothing personal: I had simply been reduced to fodder by predators. Like lightning, the robbery had struck randomly. But how could that be? It was Christmas Day and I was to receive an award named after a Baptist preacher who changed the course of a nation through his belief in social justice and the power of peaceful resistance. The preacher was African American and so were my aggressors. The bitter incongruity of a Christmas Day robbery captured the imagination of some Baltimore residents. I was soon being called by reporters from local television stations in search of a story. The idea did not appeal to me for several reasons. Most African American men hold jobs that pay modest wages, live by the rules of the larger society and seldom receive media coverage. They quietly bear the injuries of race and class. By comparison, felons attract exaggerated attention with the consequent perpetuation of a damaging stereotype. I did not want to contribute to that trend. What I wanted reporters to note is that in the absence of significant investments in impoverished families and their children, it is not surprising that a few of the latter grow up to become monstrous reflections of our collective neglect. We may build more prisons, demand retribution, purchase weapons and flee to the suburbs like frightened rabbits; but as long as we tolerate residential segregation and concentrated poverty in the inner city, we can expect some of us with cash in our pockets to be assaulted, even on a day of worship. Outrage at the effects of social dismemberment informs my community involvement. I received the Martin Luther King Jr. Award as a result of my work on behalf of Parent Plus, an initiative that aims to establish cooperative relations between individuals and families of unequal means to promote children's educational and social opportunities. Years of research have taught me that the most disturbing effect of poverty is not solely material deprivation but the shrinkage of experience that ensues from social exclusion and the scarcity of worthwhile resources available to the young. The gap in experience between poor and affluent breeds dehumanization on both sides of the divider. Yet middle-class families can improve the odds that impoverished children face by joining forces with their parents in the pursuit of common goals. Parent Plus stems from my own experience. Five years ago I began a working partnership with an African American girl and her family. For lack of a better term, I appointed myself as her godmother. A year later, I incorporated her younger brother and, more recently, my goddaughter's neighbor and friend. The three children live in housing projects located in some of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods. With my backing, and with the aid of students and associates, the three children have attended a parochial school, enjoyed summer camp at Hopkins and learned to swim at a private club. I have seen them skate in merriment at Rockefeller Center and eat exotic foods in Manhattan's Upper East Side. With the sponsorship of two of my colleagues, the girls take modern dance classes at the Peabody Preparatory, and the boy receives karate instruction twice a week. Three Hopkins undergraduates serve as tutors. Our purpose has been to strengthen the children's sense of membership in American society by making them aware that those who care about their future include, in addition to their relatives, friends of various ages, nationalities, colorations, and social and religious backgrounds. It is a simple but compelling idea: to deal with impoverished children as if their well-being mattered to preserve our own. Ten years ago my assailants were about the age of my godson and still open to the influence of sympathetic adults outside their families and neighborhoods. Were those adults available? Probably not. The lesson is that only through personal involvement do we earn the right to hold impoverished children accountable for their behavior. If we do not claim them, they will come back to haunt us, unrecognizable, debased, lost. I shudder to remember the Christmas Day robbery. Then, the telephone rings. It is my godson calling from a bleak unit in the Baltimore projects; he wants to mail a thank-you note to my friend in New Jersey whom we visited two weeks ago. My heart leaps in recognition: Here is a small display of civility, in response to hospitality, whose larger meaning Martin Luther King would have understood.
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