Monday, January 5, 2015

Finding the real Ronald

I’m not sure what I thought I’d found when I met Ronald, an African-American kid in a football letter jacket, attending an after-school newspaper session I was conducting as a favor for an old friend. Her staff is almost entirely female, which is typical. Girls read and like to write, while boys don’t read and hate to write and spend huge chunks of their young lives wasting zombies on computers.

So, I was surprised to find Ronald there. He didn’t participate in the discussions, but he wasn’t disruptive, so I paid scant attention to him until his teacher shared with me a rough draft of his article about two brothers who play tennis.

“Rough” is an understatement, and my lizard brain tempted me to embrace the convenient stereotypes regarding race and gender and teen culture, which I’m apt to do if I’m not on my guard and might have anyway had I not just watched the rioting in Ferguson, Mo., and the media circus in tow. I thought about Michael Brown and decided I needed to learn more about Ronald than the fact that he’s black and wears a football jacket and once wrote “tense” when he should have written “tennis.”

So, I asked my friend to ask Ronald if he’d agree to a short interview. Of course, he was happy to, but then, he would be because, as I now know, Ronald is happy about most everything.

During our brief interview, he used the word “love” at least a dozen times. He loves school, his classes, the other members of the newspaper staff.

Mostly, he loves sports, especially football. He’s a JV tailback and defensive end, and though it was an up-and-down season, he loved every moment of it — even when he conked his head on the corner of a table while horsing around in the locker room, landing him in the emergency room with a gash that will likely leave a scar.

Somehow, Ronald is happy about this because it taught him an important lesson: Leaders don’t horse around in the locker room. That’s important to know because he now sees himself as a leader.

“A leader,” he told me, “has to be strong. He can’t get down and want to quit and just say, ‘Aw, I quit. I can’t do it.’ If you’re going to be a leader, you have to be ready to go when times are tough. Sometimes, I just have to say, ‘Hey, be the leader you can be and try a little harder.’”

Like in chemistry, which he thought would be his hardest class but is not. In fact, he loves it.

“I got a knack for chemistry that makes me want to figure out all this scientific stuff. It makes me wonder, ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘Where did this come from?’”

Actually, Ronald has a knack for life. His sophomore classmates voted him onto the Homecoming Court, but he missed the pep rally because that was the day he was horsing around and bonked his head.

Bandaged and released, he made it to the game. Of course, his classmates were ecstatic to see him on the sidelines.

“I saw one kid with a poster of me,” he said. “You could see the tears and joy in my eyes. I was so happy and so excited, but I could still feel the pain, but, I was thinking, ‘It’s just a great moment.’ I was extremely happy to be there.”

Make of this what you like, but here’s my take-away: Almost everything I first thought about Ronald was wrong, and if I hadn’t met him, my first impression would have calcified and confirmed a lie. Imagine that. Now, Imagine doing that every day, several times every day. That probably explains Ferguson.