Johns Hopkins Gazette: January 30, 1995

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.

Go back to Previous Page

Go to Gazette Homepage