“Grandmas coming?’ I ask, holding the phone and swinging around to look at my wife, “that’s not good.”
Two of the boys are playing PlayStation, Josey’s preparing dinner. “Because it’s rough here,” I say, “she’s gonna really struggle with them.” Visions of my grandmother being cursed at or disrespected by these boys flash quickly, “I just don’t know if she’ll be okay here,” I say, hoping, praying, that somehow she just can’t make it.
But she does, all five feet nothin of her, and with a single act, she teaches me one of the greatest lessons of my life and changes the culture of the grouphome forever.
Since the day we moved in with the six teenage juvenile boys, JC was a problem. Raised on some of the harshest streets of Philadelphia, he had a toughness and confidence I wasn’t used to, I wasn’t prepared for. “He’s the real deal,” I was warned in the days leading up to our move, “in all my years,” the counselor told me, “he’s the only one whose truly scared me.”
And for good reason.
JC (the one on the left) was built like a boxer and had “Clemens” and “Boys” tattooed down the backside of his forearms, “So dey know who boxin ‘em” he told me. His hands and face were scared from his many encounters, and he was always looking for more, even from me, since the day we moved in.
“Guys,” I called down the hall of the four-room ranch house, “come here for a minute, we need to talk.” Five boys reluctantly broke from their rooms and shuffled down the hall. JC stayed behind.
“JC,” I yelled, “lets go!”
We had moved in a little over a week ago, we were the house parents, but things were not going as hoped. We needed to talk.
“Hey,” I yell, making my way down the hallway, “JC!” I open his door to find him laying on his bed, listening to music, and writing raps. “Did you hear me?” I ask.
“I heard ya,” he says, his pencil dancing across the paper and his head bouncing to the beat.
“Lets go then,” I say.
“What we gotta talk about?” he asks without looking up.
“The house, let’s go.”
His pencil stops. “Why?”
“Because,” I say, “lets go, now.”
“Dis is bullshit” he says.
“Let’s go,” I say again, “and stop cursing.”
He jerks from the bed, stomps towards the door, and as he passes, slams his face within inches of mine, “Why you gotta be such a DICK HEAD!” Then heads down the hall.
JC’s raps were the source of many of our conflicts; often because he wanted to write them late into the night, well past the hour lights out, but more so because his raps could make a sailor blush.
“No cursing” was one of the Cardinal Rules of the house, but JC didn’t seem to care.
Which is why when my grandmother said she wanted to visit, the upper class grandmother, the very white and very conservative Christian grandmother who when surprised would say, “Oh my lanta,” who taught me the innocent joy of eating lunch under the table, and who wouldn’t let me play until the wrinkles in my bed were flattened out, I was terrified.
JC had many wrinkles.
On about the second or third day of her visit, I was working outside with a few of the other boys. JC was inside, with my grandmother, and I was getting nervous, so I decided to check in on him.
When I came in the back door, I found JC sitting at the table with Grandma, reading one of his raps, and my heart stopped. Oh shit! But I didn’t say it of course – we had a cardinal rule, but I did quickly rush over to hear what he was saying.
Then I noticed my grandmother’s face.
She was crying.
And when I nonchalantly walked past I noticed something else. She was holding his hand.
My grandmother was listening to JC’s raps, his vulgar, violent, and sexually explicit raps.
I stopped dead in my tracks. I couldn’t believe it.
My Grandmother was sitting with JC, listening to him, and holding his hand.
And he was letting her.
Two days later, just before she left, my grandmother took this picture:
and for the next few months, JC and my grandmother wrote letters, because my grandmother didn’t simply tolerate JC, she cared for him. Sincerely.
One night, JC was sitting on his bed, playing over and over a song he was writing a rap to, when I came in. It was two hours past lights out and I was exhausted, but I remembered the lesson from my grandmother and asked, “What are you writin about?”
“My moms,” he said.
I was intrigued, “What about her?”
“It’s her birfday next week so I’m writin her a letta.”
“It’s ah-ight,” he said, still not looking up.
“Hey,” I said, getting his attention, “you mind if I come in?”
“What you want?” he asked.
“Can I read some of your raps?” I asked.
“Yeah, you can read dis one.” He handed me the letter to his mom.
I don’t remember much of the letter outside of it being an apology for missing yet another birthday for being locked up. However, the poignancy of the letter would be similar to this poem by an equally tough and intimidating young man, Tupac Shakur:
Sometimes when I’m alone
I cry because I’m on my own
The tears I cry R bitter and warm
They flow with life but take no form
I cry because my heart is torn
And I find it difficult 2 carry on
If I had an ear 2 confide in
I would cry among my treasured friends
But who do u know that stops that long
To help another carry on
The world moves fast and it would rather pass u by
Than 2 stop and c what makes u cry
It’s painful and sad and sometimes I cry
And no one cares about why.
I stayed up late that night pouring over his lyrics, his art, his heart.
JC lived with us for another several months, and when it came time for him to leave, my wife cried. By the end of his time with us, he became one of our favorites (along with Kairi, the other young man in the picture), and whenever I had to leave for a night class, it was JC that I pulled aside and asked to look after my wife and small son.
All because of the lesson my grandmother taught me.
To not just tolerate JC, but to care about him, to care about the things he cares about, to love what he loves, and to try and know him.
To empathize and not judge.
To learn and not criticize.
To get over myself and to choose him, all of him, no matter what.
Because tolerance doesn’t forgive, doesn’t hope, doesn’t love, doesn’t heal. It simply tolerates, and that’s not enough.
Tolerance isn’t enough.
And I know its true because my grandmother said it.
Yet she never said a word.