(The following is an excerpt from a larger, work-in-progress essay).
You Live and You Learn by Manny C.
I was born into a world that was falling apart in violence and crime. Some commit crimes for the thrill, some do it simply because they feel there is no way out. Money is the root of all evil.
In the city of Chicago, this is the reality for most family members. The youth find pleasure inside gang life. They refuse to live in poverty and quickly adapt to the fast life, fast money. This was/is the story of my life, until I finally listened to my new mentors that showed me a different perspective. My sudden dynamic experience being mentored was overwhelming.
I was born in the Norwegian Hospital and raised on Kedvale between North Avenue and Cortland. At the age of 8, I realized I lived in the borderline of two rival gangs. Groups by the dozens would stand under street lights late at night surrounded by girls and fancy cars. Shootouts would erupt out of gangways and alleys making everybody scatter like roaches. I would be watching from our third floor bedroom window with my brother that was 2 years older than me. We would try to make sense on who is doing what to who and why.
There were nights when we would be excited to see events like these. But there were days we wished they would just put the guns down. Countless times our block parties were cancelled due to gang violence.
I remember the day as if it was yesterday, the day I learned how to ride a bike. It was my 9th birthday, mid-June on a beautiful day. My dad bought me my first two-wheeled bicycle. I couldn’t wait to finish eating so I could go outside and show it off to my friends.
I remember my dad guiding me and telling me how to keep my balance. I felt his arm on my shoulder as he told me to go faster until I noticed he had removed his hand from me. I looked back and realized he stayed behind and I was riding this bike by myself. I felt like the coolest kid on the block with my black Huffy bike with pegs.
The block party was on full effect. My neighbor right then and there approached the fire hydrant with a big, red wrench. All the kids on the block knew what time it was. As my neighbor struggled to open the valve, every kid stopped what they were doing and ran towards the water that began blasting out. The water from the hydrant formed a small rainbow in the mist.
Down the block, the latest Cumbia song started playing on full volume. The older teens got in the middle of the street and started dancing to the rhythm. It didn’t take long for one of them to pull me off my Huffy bike to make me dance. At nine years old I didn’t know how to dance, but I sure acted like I knew what I was doing; shaking my tail side to side, one step, two step. Emily laughed with me and encouraged me to keep going while she showed off her moves. Emily was 16 years old and she was my next door neighbor. I had the biggest crush on her ever since I met her. I loved it when she would call me her “lil man.”
As I danced with her I heard a bird call…all of a sudden, I saw a masked man run out of a gangway. He started letting rounds off towards Cortland where three guys started running for cover. Emily covered me with her body as she carried me off the street as fast as she could. One thing I knew for sure was that one of my family members was involved in this constant battle for this neighborhood.
Yet again, another perfect day ruined. Why did it have to be on my birthday?
Unfortunately, I had eight uncles that were gang related. It was normal for me to have their company; I felt secured. One tragic day I lost one of my uncles to gang violence. This forced my parents to leave the city for the sake of my two little sisters, my older brother, and me. But it was too late for me.
By eighth grade, I carried on my uncle’s ways. I smoked and caused trouble in the neighborhood with my friends. I bought my first car at age 15; all drug money. My parents didn’t have a clue I had so much. They were just proud I had such tremendous grades in school.
I always believed the weed was the key to my success to my grades. Math and science were my best subjects. I actually found astronomy and formulas quite fascinating. I mastered a couple formulas by simply putting two and two together. This made everything else mathematically simple. And curiosity took the best of me in biology. It blew my mind how small I am compared to how big the universe is. I needed to know more; I was hungry for knowledge. But once that bell rang, it was back to the streets…