Today is Friday. Which means it’s a pool day. Which means fifty hyperactive and loud kids running around the USC aquatics center. Which means fifteen stressed and watchful leader chaperones. Which means I supervise Iajai, as usual.
It’s funny. I live thirty minutes away from this part of the city, but it might as well be a different place entirely. Growing up in the safe suburbs of Los Angeles, my dad always warned me about those parts of the city. “Careful when you go down there,” he’d say. “There’s gangsters everywhere.” Now I’m walking around south central, working with kids at LA Art Project. And sure, the gang activity is real. We fall asleep to the sound of helicopters flying low over the city. But then you make the smallest action—like taking them to the pool on Fridays—and the kids’ faces light up. It’s all you can think about, those faces and the city.
When we first start going to the pool on Fridays, Iajai hates swimming. His mom drops him off, tells us she wants him to learn how to swim. We tell the kids the rules and they all break, running off to the pool. Iajai stays with me. He’s small, but don’t let size fool you. The kid’s a little daredevil. But today, with the pool, he’s real hesitant. He edges up to the pool ledge, dips his feet in. The water is cold. He freezes. “I’m not going in,” he says.
“Aijay, come on,” I say.
“No.” He stands stiff and still on the edge of the pool.
“Come on, Iajai. Come on. I’ll hold you,” I say. I hold him. We walk into the water in slow steps. He starts giggling cause the water’s all cold. Even as I hold him while he makes swimming motions, I can tell that the hesitation is gone. That even though he’s afraid, he knows I have him.
Iajai lives in a house primarily for single mothers raising kids by themselves who are trying to find work. Out of all the people living in this house–his sister, his mom, the three other women, their daughters–he’s the only guy. Occasionally, the landlady’s son will drop by the house. But you can just tell there’s not a single male figure in his life. He’s grown up with that. Could be why he gravitated toward me.
His story isn’t that atypical. A lot of the kids have a similar one–kids being raised by a single mother, seeing their dad only a few times a year. There’s a missing part of the equation. There’s no male figure. And the male figures they have are the ones who loiter outside on the porch, drinking and smoking. We’d see them there everyday. From eight in the morning to eight at night, they sit on their porch and drink beer. Even though young kids live with them. We go out, we come back hours later–they’re still planted there. One day, we approach them and ask if their kids want to come to our day camp. It’s three of these older men and a girl around our age—maybe nineteen or twenty—leaning against the porch.
“What do you guys teach them there?” one of the men asks.
“Kinda everything,” I say. “You know. We have arts, little science projects, reading.”
The man lifts his cigarette to his mouth. He points it at the girl. “Hey, you’re stupid,” he says. “You should go to that thing, too.”
She rolls her head away. “Whatever,” she says. You can tell she’s calloused about conversations like this. It’s a symptom of the city, the lack of motivation. The kids don’t have motivation. They don’t know how to dream. These are the realities that they deal with. There’s no space for dreams.
One weekend, our team invites our parents up for the kids to meet our families. My dad can’t make it, so my uncle and his family comes instead. And even though it’s not my dad, when I introduce the kids to my uncle, I can see it somehow in their faces—the jealousy, the incomprehension. “Oh,” they say. Their faces fall. They slip from hyper-excitement to apathy. And when one of my teammates’ dad pulls up with a huge ice cream truck and tells the kids they can pick whatever they want–anything at all–you can tell it’s a foreign concept. They’ve never seen anything like that before.
Consistency is what they don’t have, and it’s the very thing they need. In so many different ways. There’s a nine-year-old kid who, at the beginning of the summer, reads at a five-year-old reading level. By the end of summer, his reading shoots up three levels—just from us saying, “Come on, you got this.” Three or four words a day to one of these boys completely changes how they view life. Just by saying “You got this, dude.” It’s the smallest little things—things that don’t even mean much to me, that I don’t even realize. In only six weeks, my presence had a real change on them. And I don’t know what that means as far as my own future. I always saw myself as a suburb boy, taking over my dad’s law firm, living where my family lives. But now I don’t know how it all affects the plan. Yet holding Iajai—this means something. It changes something, though I’m not quite sure how yet.
So today is Friday. One of the last pool days of our summer day camp. Iajai is all confidence now, all daredevil. He walks up to the edge of the pool without any hesitation.
“I’m gonna jump in,” he says.
“Okay,” I say. “You jump, I catch you.” I wade into the water and hold open my arms. He leaps in with broad jumps, swiveling backwards. His grin splits his whole face. He jumps in over and over again, and I catch him.
We get out of the pool. He’s such a small kid and the water is so cold, he shivers all over. I pick him up and get a towel around him.
“I hope you have many sons,” one of the leaders says to me.
When I walk Iajai home, I ask him how the last day was for him. “Did you have fun?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says through his smile. “Thank you. Thank you for saving me when I was drowning.” And then, without saying anything else, he runs off. Runs home, opens the door. Probably hasn’t thought about it again. But I still am. I’m thinking about those men with the porch lined with beer bottles and how three or four small words can brighten a face. I’m thinking of how this doesn’t fit with the neat plan and how I still have a lot of questions. But I am also thinking about that moment, when I was holding that small kid all cold in his towel—it seems to offer more answers than anything else.