It’s safe to say that doing a year of service with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) changed my life. I served as a teacher/lunch coordinator at Detroit Cristo Rey High School, which in the heart of a small neighborhood called “Mexicantown.” I learned a lot of things about myself that could hardly be conveyed in a book, let alone one of these 400 word blogs. So, what I’d like to do is share a story about one of my students. (for the sake of privacy I will be using a different name)
When I first saw Miguel, I thought he was a punk. He was a good looking kid. Clean cut. But he looked like he always wanted to fight. I always wondered if Miguel was in a gang.
But as the year went on, he was assigned to be my personal helpers in the lunch room. Since he was a bigger guy, he helped lug milk crates up to the third-floor cafeteria almost every day. During our down time I learned a lot about him. He told me about his cars and how he was saving up for a new motor to go into an old Mercedes that he was fixing up with his uncle.
One day Miguel couldn’t stop talking about the town’s Cinco de Mayo parade and the craziness that ensues. As we continued talking, he let me know that the parade was a breeding ground for gang violence. The parade traveled through a long street which went into different gang territories and crossing territories was a big no-no. Miguel went on and on chattering about rims and low-rider cars passing through and all of a sudden he said “… and oh, Mr. Sison…” It was as if something invaded his mind. He stopped cold like he was watching an invisible television screen in front of his face. “Miguel… are you okay?” I said quietly.
“Um… Mister… one of my friends… um… he… um…“
My heart sunk instantly.
“What do you mean your friend died, Miguel?”
“He died in the parade.”
Miguel continued to tell me that one of the gangs chased his friend down and shot him behind a Burger King, which was a block away from our school.
“Miguel, did you see him? Did you see him get shot?” Miguel, with a blank stare, nodded his head slowly and continued to stare. “I’m so sorry, Miguel… I’m… so sorry you had to see that.”
Miguel continued to stare, nodding slowly. Almost as if the nodding would hold back tears.
There were no words shared after that. Miguel and I just sat there until the bell rang. Both of us with a blank stare.
Looking back at that moment, I had no idea what to say. In fact, even if it happened now, I would still have no idea what to say. Gun violence always takes away the words.
After that moment, we never spoke of the event again. He returned to class the same old trouble making, class-disrupting teenager, as if nothing happened. But in that moment of shared silence there was an intimate exchange. One of love, trust, and mutual-respect.
Sometimes there are no words to be shared, only a presence. And that can sometimes mean the world.
Miguel, if you are reading this, thank you for making me a better person.