Updated: December 2, 2013 12:12PM
There are so many lost children today. Lost in the ’hood. Lost in space. Adrift in that space that is a vast gulf between the American dream and the American nightmare. That space between the American mainstream and that other America that is an ever-swelling sea of the poor and underclass.
On one side of that divide, between the two Americas, is the lure of criminality, of illegal drug enterprises that dangle fast money and cars to young men — and women — willing to risk their souls. There is the lure of guns — easily accessible — that allows young men who feel otherwise impotent to wield power over life and death. There is the trap of teen pregnancy. The snares of poverty and miseducation. The prick of pathology that lulls too many prematurely to eternal sleep.
There are the generational shackles of drug abuse, hopelessness, broken families, economic and educational failure and ignorance that can work much more effectively than chains ever could to enslave a people. Today we suffer mental chains.
And yet, where policies, programs, politicians and preachers fail to make even a dent, there is something that I believe can make those heavy chains melt. That can help set the captive free. One thing — though it is not a negligible thing.
As an adult student completing my studies at the University of Illinois in Champaign, I lived for several years in married student housing — a residential complex on the southeast end of campus called Orchard Downs. Built in the 1960s, it consisted of a mix of tri-level, frame-style apartment buildings and also a section of redbrick and cinderblock two-story low-rises.
In a way, Orchard Downs reminded me of some housing projects in Chicago. I arrived there that fall of 1984 with my wife and three children from K-Town on Chicago’s impoverished West Side to resume my studies after having dropped out of college five years earlier. It would soon become clear that the two communities were vastly different. And that difference had little to do with the housing stock or the income level of the people who dwelled therein.
Like the people who lived in my old neighborhood, most families at Orchard Downs were struggling financially. At Orchard Downs, most parents worked and also went to school. And yet, I saw finer cars in my old neighborhood than in the parking lot of married student housing. My old neighbors also wore finer clothes. My new neighbors couldn’t have cared less about fashion. Truth is, neither could afford it.
I studied the similarities and also the differences. It would be for me a lesson on life. At Orchard Downs, I got the sense that what you saw generally was all that anybody had. No flash. Little cash. Lots of struggle. And yet, there was no trash in the courtyard or in the corridor of the apartment buildings. No urine-smelling hallways. No loud music. No fights. No gunshots. No debris strewn, bald lawns. No yelling.
Only emerald fields of dreams. The sound of crickets at night and the sight of lamps glowing from apartment windows where people studied — often well into the morning hours. Peace that hung in the air like a cool breeze kissing an autumn evening.
By their pocketbooks, my new neighbors were poor. But proper placement of their values made them so rich.
I also soon realized that they had something that so many people in poor neighborhoods don’t: hope. And that hope stemmed from their understanding that someday they would be doctors, lawyers and engineers, scientists, educators. It stemmed from the knowledge that suffering and making do “today” was simply part of the necessary sacrifice for creating a brighter tomorrow.
Their hope gave them a vision for the future. And a glimpse of their future gave them greater faith and hope for their journey.
In my eyes, that’s still the best compass for lost children: education, opportunity and hope. None greater than hope.