For Pittsfield youths, mentors teach value of self-worth
PITTSFIELD — He looked to his left. Rahmel and the others were writing things down. To his right, Theo and the others were, too.
Exzeveyes Powell — "Ze," they all call him (pronounced "Zay") — looked up to the ceiling tiles, to the heavens above. He looked back down to the little blank piece of paper they handed him and pressed his pencil upon it to form the words that could help save him.
"Write down three good things about yourself."
That's what the three men told him to do, and so he did.
All the boys did.
And when they were done, the three men instructed them to fold the paper — the writing side facing outward so it doesn't get mistaken for trash — and place it into their pockets for later.
Their homework assignment: Each evening, each morning, pull that paper out, stand in front of a mirror, and repeat those words to the vulnerable young middle schooler staring back at them.
Three good things about himself? So far in Ze's young life, things seem to come in threes.
He can easily think of three bad things that have gotten the better of him. Like when his father was sent away for a while. Like when his 21-year-old cousin who had been like a brother to him accidentally shot and killed himself. Like when a friend of his had to go to the emergency room last month after troubled kids in a city park shot him above the eye with a BB gun.
He can think of many good things that define his world, too. His mother, his grandmother and his little brother. His scooter, his basketball and his fishing pole. His dreams of being a NBA player or a chef or a police officer.
And now there are these three men in this classroom: Tariq Pinkston, Xavier Jones and Warren Davis. They showed up a couple weeks ago, saying things like, "You all are going to show this city what it's about, what people who are downtrodden can do."
'I was broken'
Last month, Pittsfield was put on edge with reports of BB-gun wielding youth, of kids getting shot at, of fights and threats online and in the streets. An 18-year-old man was eventually arrested, a person who, officials say, was allegedly recruiting middle schoolers to engage in thug behavior meant to intimate, frighten and cause havoc.
The police increased their presence in the city's parks and put a detail at Reid Middle School. In addition, Pittsfield School Superintendent Jason McCandless placed a call to his old friend Pinkston to propose an idea. Pinkston said yes.
And so on Tuesday, May 7, at Reid Middle School, a selected group of boys, including Ze, walked into a classroom to discover three men who know what can happen when good boys from rough neighborhoods make terrible choices.
Pinkston, 32, knows. Raised in the city's west side, he was teased and bullied throughout his childhood. "My main goal is that I don't want others feeling what I felt growing up," he said. "I was broken. It took a lot to put the pieces back together."
Jones, 36, knows. He grew up in Philadelphia, in a drug-and-alcohol-infested environment, where black males like himself likely end up stuck in a box by the age of 25 — either in a jail cell or a casket.
"I want these kids to know there are people who have walked in their shoes," he said. "There's someone who has felt similar pain — and how to overcome it. And there's more to the world than what meets the eye."
Davis, 39, knows. "I've been a part of the mess," he says. Raised in New York City by a single mother who loved him dearly, he chose to follow the men in his life who were taking and dealing drugs. Between the ages of 16 and 24, he was lost to the criminal justice system.
"I don't want that for you," he told the nine boys gathered around the table, "because it's not a guarantee that you're going to make it out. It's not a guarantee that you can do dumb things and stay alive."
Pinkston works as a fitness instructor and motivational speaker. Jones is owner of Bigg Daddy's Philly Steak House off North Street. Davis is a server at the Red Lion Inn. Under the name of XCELL: Mentorship, they have been mentoring students weekly at Taconic High School beginning last fall. They now visit Reid weekly as well. It's all volunteer.
And they couldn't have arrived at Reid at a more tension-filled time.
The boys in this classroom were not involved in last month's mayhem. They were chosen because they could benefit from the consistent presence of positive male role models. These are men who can help the boys make connections in the community and who can authoritatively speak about defeat and rising above.
Behind that closed door in that classroom, "the boys can talk about things that they might not talk about with us," said Linda Whitacre, Reid's principal.
Rahmel Smith, 14, an eighth grader at Reid, is thankful to have them. Amidst the troubles last month, he experienced the distinct displeasure of cops pulling up to his house to question him. A good student, a gifted athlete, Rahmel had nothing to do with the recent troubles, but friends of his allegedly did.
Unlike his father before him, Rahmel has never been in trouble with the police, "and I want to keep it that way," his mother, Jennifer White, said last Saturday, sitting with Rahmel in her apartment on West Union Street, where she's been raising him and his older sister.
"The trouble he gets into is with his mouth and his attitude," she said, her hand on her son's knee. "He's honest. He's still a little guy, though he's not so little anymore."
At that, Rahmel straightens up.
Three good things about himself?
He came up with six. He's got them memorized.
Ze had that piece of paper in his pocket as he made his way home from school, up Woodbine Avenue, past the yellow caution sign. The sign says "CHILDREN" above which someone scrawled "Save the" in black ink.
For the past year, he and his little brother have lived at their grandmother's pretty little red house at the top of the hill. His mother has since moved in as well. They eat together in a dining room that has words in a frame that say, "Home is where your mom is."
Ze, his mother, Ashley, and her mother, Mary, are in agreement on the varied and elemental truths that define the complex world into which Ze must find his way.
If you see someone playing with a gun, you walk away. If your grades start to slide, you pull them back up. If you get bullied, like Ze did earlier this school year, you keep your cool. If someone tells you you have no value, you don't believe them. If you work hard, you can be what you want to be, though it's agreed Ze is obliged to remain his mother's "li'l king."
And when three men from the community offer to help figure your life out, take their help.
The men told him, "Keep taking that piece of paper out and saying those things to yourself. It seems stupid, but I'm telling you."
Three good things about himself?
That evening, Ze went into his bedroom, took out the piece of paper and looked at himself in the mirror — at his copper-colored hair and freckles, the baby fat gone, a handsome young man emerging.
"I am a good person."
Felix Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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