One day in the spring of 2011, a group of middle-school boys were eating lunch with Christine S. Beck, then the president and CEO of Gesu School, an independent Catholic school in North Philly. They asked Beck if she would write a book with them. The group of boys, which eventually expanded to eight—Amir, Cameron, Christian, Hasan, Isaiah, Kyheim, Tyhee and Vaughn—met during lunch periods and after school to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up; how they think teachers should treat students; racism; what scares them; and why this project was so important to them.
In July, their writings resulted in Listen to Our Voices, a glossy, photo-heavy 78-page book by Infinity Publishing that compiles the boys’ thoughts and feelings about life in Philadelphia.
“This book ... describes how eight black male students, ages 10 through 12, express their goals and dreams for themselves—with great confidence,” Beck writes. She insists Listen to Our Voices isn’t mean to serve as a case study on urban youth, but there are certainly some things we can learn about the boys. Here are 10 takeaways.
1. The kids want to be heard. “[A] lot of kids don’t have inspiration in their lives because they just think that a lot of adults don’t understand what’s happening now,” writes Vaughn, 11. “Sometimes adults are so busy trying to tell us what to do that they don’t think about what we have to say and our ideas and why we do things.”
2. They’re concerned about societal issues and want to be part of the solution. “What I wish for is that the homeless find homes. I also wish that people would stop dropping out of school,” writes Cameron. One boy proposed the following solution to violence and drug problems: “Cops should take all guns and there should be a drugs drive to get you off the street and they give you $100 to help you start a new life.” Isaiah, 9, thinks the mayor should stop inviting casinos into our city. “They can build casinos in New Jersey but not here,” he writes.
3. They have good intentions. “We wanted to write this book so we can change the life of the little kids,” wrote one unidentified boy. “I also want to change the life of kids in Africa.”
4. They have big dreams. Most of the boys in the book cite dreams of playing professional basketball. Amir, who plays point guard on three teams, wants to play in the NBA but his backup plan, should he be injured, is to become a doctor. Cameron, who wants to be “the best basketball player in the world,” would settle for being a veterinarian. Christian, 11, wants to be a classical pianist and composer.
5. They’re creative. Tyhee, 12, wants to be a cartoonist if he can’t be a basketball player. Hasan, 12, loves to sing. “I love to paint, draw and play around,” writes Amir. Kyheim, who is 10 and wrote a short play that is published in Listen to Our Voices, wants to be an actor when he grows up, and likes writing poems “better than stories to express your feelings, your thoughts.”
6. They face challenges at school. Among the problems they have with school are: They feel their teachers talk down to them and don’t listen; that they’re not being challenged; or that they’re being failed by sharing a classroom with girls. Christian writes: “A good teacher is nice, respectful and has discipline but they don’t talk to children like they are trash.” Cameron expresses academic frustration: “I wish this school has more advanced stuff.” Tyhee struggles with the co-ed classroom he’s in: “Girls are treated different than boys because they want boys to be disciplined and girls can have fun and play.”
7. They struggle with anger. “I need to keep my temper down,” writes Vaughn. “Not a lot of people have seen me fully mad but it would be kind of bad and later I feel bad about it.” Christian adds: “I just go away and do something else and don’t worry about them.”
8. Despite how their lives have been affected by violence, their memories of feeling brave all involve violence. “My cousin was stabbed in the heart,” wrote one student. Another wrote: “When I felt most frightened is when there was a shooting outside of my house.” Further moments of courage included: “I felt brave when I socked this boy cause he hit my brother”; “I felt most brave when I standed up to a bully who was bullying someone else”; and, “I felt most brave when I had to ride for my cousins when they were fighting in the hood.”
9. They shun racism. “At my old school, someone called me a nigger and my only answer to that was why did he just call me that,” writes Cameron. “He didn’t answer that. Caucasian people can talk about black people but we are all just the same. It’s just our skin color.”
10. They don’t realize how many influential black figures there were throughout history. In the chapter, “Our Heroes,” seven of the boys cited Martin Luther King Jr., and Cameron listed him secondary to President Obama. “[B]lack and whites still won’t sit next to each other. Dr. Martin Luther King is a good man, he fought [against] racism all over the world and that’s why I like him. Also, he stopped most of the black-on-white crime,” Amir wrote. (Rosella Eleanor LaFevre)
Listen to Our Voices is available on Amazon.com.