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Growing up fast presents challenges for youths


AUDIO — Eighth grader Gabriel Hamilton feels that things need to change now. She hopes that with Barack Obama as president, he will be able to make a difference in her life and the lives of millions of others by making this world and this country a better place to live.

Thirteen-year-old Gabriel Hamilton, an eighth grader at Johnnie Cochran Middle School, defies all common misconceptions about a young teen. She works hard in school and dissuades her friends from being gangbangers. She does not wish to get pregnant at this age and she wants parents not just to tell their kids to avoid sex, but to tell them why not.

“People say you don’t know if you are going to use a condom because when the time comes you are going to be so ready to do it you are not going to worry about it. But I am not stupid I know I need to use protection”, she says turning slightly red as she makes her point. The eight-grader who joined Johnnie Cochran Middle school in the sixth grade said she has learned from her mother’s mistakes and does not want to end up like other 13-year-olds or 14-year-olds who she sees getting pregnant.

Her story is one of the hard realities facing students at Johnnie Cochran and other urban schools across the country. The nation’s unraveling economy has only compounded the pressures poor and working-class families were already facing, with the pressures seemingly falling harder on children and youth like Gabriel. Poor housing, thin or no employment, chronically underfinanced schools, which are also often failing, all conspire to place urban America in one of the deepest holes it has seen since the conditions that spawned the 1965 Watts riots. Buried within the present economic crisis is another calamity which is leading to the disintegration of the family structure. As parents work harder to meet the economic needs of their families, the children face the brunt of separation from their parents for long hours, days or at times even weeks. This separation manifests itself in terms of isolation, loneliness and low self-esteem among children and youth like Gabriel. While some tend to survive this transition with love and support from teachers and friends, many children fall through the cracks.

Economic tumult accelerates the disintegration of family structure, affecting the
relationship between parents and children severely.

Living with grandmother

After her mother, Rashida, lost their apartment earlier last year in February, Gabriel and her twin brothers moved in with their grandmother. Rashida wasn’t able to work for some time after she had a baby last year. The situation worsened as she could not find anybody to look after the baby later and had to stay away from work. This affected her finances severely and she helplessly watched her saving deplete before her eyes. Rashida currently works as a hair stylist and has been in and out of beauty parlors since the age of 16. While this arrangement provides some relief to Gabriel from what she describes as a ‘struggling’ relationship with her mother, she says that living with her grandmother is also very challenging at times. “My grandmother is very old, sometimes she helps us, sometimes she doesn’t, she likes to yell, if you are doing something really quick, she yells,” she further adds.

What hurts Gabriel the most though is the relationship that she shares with her mother, “We don’t talk much and when we do we don’t have a mother-daughter talk. If I was to get pregnant and call my mom like okay mom I am pregnant and I need help says Gabriel, she would yell, she would fuss, she would want to hit me.” A few weeks earlier Gabriel’s step mom, Melanie, who is her dad’s girl friend, had a talk with her about safe sex and on using protection. She also told her to seek her for help if she ever got pregnant or needed tips on birth controls, a conversation she needs given U.S. data on teen pregnancy.

One-third of U.S. girls got pregnant before age 20, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 435,000 babies were born to teens between 15 and 19 years in 2006. Amy Schalet, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, writes in the Washington Post that the rise in teen pregnancies is a result of a lack of environment in which young people receive support from parents and other adults and learn about relationships and making wise sexual choices.

However in case of Gabriel such guidance is not available. Her mother, Rashida, acknowledging the communication gap between the two says that, “She doesn’t really share much. She tells me about school and teachers but she not really open to conversation, just a little.” Rashida doesn’t talk much about boys with Gabriel, as she feels that she is still young to have such conversations. “I may have spoken with her one or twice, but I don’t need to mention it to her, because she knows better,” she further says adding she is not 16 yet.

Gabriel strongly feels that the only way parents can touch a common note with
their children on issues of sex and pregnancy is through talking and not by
yelling or hitting them.

A fractured family

She lifts her head when asked about her father and when she does that you cannot miss the sparkle in her eyes. She reminisces about the good old times she shared with her father, five years back before he went to jail. She remembers everything from the meeting and the father-daughter talks they used to have. While her father is not around anymore to physically take care of her now, she can still feel the concern in his voice when he advises her to be careful and to use protection when the time comes. She says this is quite different from earlier times. When he was around he never told her not to have boyfriends. As she talks about her father further, her hands suddenly move anxiously around the table and a shadow of fear looms over her face and within few seconds the reasons becomes apparent. “They say that if his appeal doesn’t get through he may have five more years, 10 more years or even 30 more years, I am praying for my dad so that his appeal go through, because if it does he might get out next year or in beginning of May,” says Gabriel crossing her fingers. Gabriel doesn’t know the reason her father has been put behind the bars. Looking back at her childhood days spent around her father, she remembers that he had lot of money. “He owned building; he owned record stores, produce music and stuff. My dad he didn’t do bad things to do money, probably he did but from what I know when I was there he didn’t.” Her struggle to keep her memories of her father untarnished becomes evident when she says, “Whatever people say on the streets you can’t listen to them they don’t know.” Rashida on the other hand is clueless about her husband’s charges, “I don’t what he got himself into.”

Something from her past that she cherishes the most are the memories of traveling on a family vacation to Louisiana and Mississippi with her parents. Another equally cherished memory that she has is that of her friends, especially Brenda and Kent, who stood by her through thick and thin and helped her keep herself together. “My life was okay because I had two families—my friends who were always there for me and my family,” says Gabriel. She affectionately talks about Kent, who has now moved away to Ontario. “He brought so much joy to my life, he had real laughs and they were funny and when I was sad, when I was down and mad he would always try to do something to make me feel happy, try to make me smile again.” Her friend Brenda with whom Gabriel shared a special bond also had to move away. “Now,” says Gabriel, with a visible mark of sorrow in her voice, “my life is different, I want to cry, but I don’t because I don’t want to be emotional.”

The impact of teachers

Some of the conversations with students that have really hit Marsha Tilles during her six years at Johnnie Cochran Middle School as a student counselor are the ones she has had during the period when the student had lost somebody close to them be it parent or friend and they were feeling very alone and isolated. So, when she meets with the students the first things that she usually does is talk. “A lot of times that is enough, they just want somebody to listen, they want to feel cared about, they want to feel heard and understood,” she says talking from her past experiences. Things as simple as talking can make a huge difference in one’s life. And Gabriel is a perfect example of this necessity. While she has had many ups and downs in her life, at one point of time she hit rock bottom. “At one point I tried to kill myself and I took 12 aspirins and I was really sick,” says Gabriel adding that it was also the time that she suffered from low self esteem regarding her appearances and thought she was “ugly.”

But a talk she still remembers changed her life. At the school one day she met a girl who shared with Gabriel her life story and how she used to be. Her story proved to be very inspiring for Gabriel. “After talking to her I started bringing my self esteem up,” she smiles adding that sometimes when people tell you stuff it can change your life around. And you can’t miss the transformation when you hear the range of aspiration that Gabriel has envisioned for herself—from being a model, or an actor, or a nurse. In the near future she would like to attend a better high school and is working hard for it by studying for her subjects and improving her grades at school. She has scored mostly B’s on all her subject in her school year this far with an exception of one C on her reading course. “It’s kind of boring,” she says of her reading class. She tries to balance her school as she juggles with her second responsibility of taking care of her sister and twin brothers.

While the school per say is not an important part of her life, what she values the most is the experience of being with teachers who work hard to teach students. She is especially fond of her Math teacher Inna Kopelevichcx and sometimes her history teacher, too. However, there are also some teachers that she feels uncomfortable about especially the way they talk to students. Flaring up in a sudden outburst, Gabriel twitches her face as she narrates what she hates about some of the teachers in the school. “I hate it when teachers make you seem like their life was so harder than ours, because it is not,” she further adds that “When they talk to students they act like they know us, oh she is just trashy or she is just hoochie, she is just fast for her age, or she don’t want to try.”

“Things will change”

Another thing that bothers Gabriel is the gang violence. Her fears have legitimate reasons not only because the neighborhoods around the school have been prone to random gunfire and other violence in the past, but also because many students from middle school and high school get fixated by gang culture and end up joining them. Just the other day, Gabriel remembers that she had to dissuade her friend from joining the ‘Bloods’ gang. “He wants to be there, because he is bad. He says he is, but he is not,” she says. “I told him that if you love your parents and other people, you will not be a gang banger because if you die the next day, you know it is going to hurt them.” She wants gang violence reduced and she hopes that President-elect Barack Obama will bring about the change that he has promised.

“Everybody needs to start new life this New Year,” she says almost in a monologue, “things need to change because it’s getting harder now, and I am getting tired.” The rush in her voice is evident as she makes her wish for the New Year. “I wish I was 18, like grown up so that I could have my own life because I know my mom’s side of family will not get any better because they don’t try. They always argue and fight each other, and sometimes I feel it will not get any better.” In the same moment, she talks about the person who has been her pillar of support in times of distress—God. “God will work everything out eventually, and if you bring God in your life, your life will get better, in some ways, somehow, no matter when,” she says. Gabriel closes her eyes and murmurs, and her faint voice seems to be saying, things will change, they have to.