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Products of Our Environment: Baltimore

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This past July, I spent time only a few miles down the road in Baltimore. Each year, my church sponsors a mission trip where we run a kind of summer camp for inner city kids, ages 3 to 17. We are immersed in city life for a week, spending our nights on air mattresses in the rooms of an old mental hospital turned ministry. Many of the kids come from unfortunate backgrounds plagued with emotional or physical abuse, the absence of parents, and the presence of violence.

Baltimore spent time in the spotlight after the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died in police custody. The weeks that followed his death were met with protests, burning buildings, and a distrustful public. In Freddie Gray’s neighborhood, 51.8 percent of the residents were unemployed between 2008 and 2012, and the median income was $24,006 per year.

The ministry is just six minutes away from Freddie Gray’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, making these kids his old next-door neighbors. Gray is seen by many as the picture of West Baltimore. Court papers revealed his troubled childhood; an illiterate mother addicted to heroin, a house riddled with lead that left Gray unable to function, and no father to be found. After his death, Gray became the poster-child for life in West Baltimore. 

During my time there, I observed that most of the kids had  a hot temper. The famous line to justify fighting was that, “My father says if someone hits you, you hit them back!” While kids everywhere fight, the anger in their eyes distinguished them from the petty fights I’d experienced in the past. 

This year in Mr. May’s AP Psychology class, students learned about how personality is formed. In short, personality is a combination of genetics and environment, also known as nature vs. nurture. Genetics, typically referred to as “nature” isn’t something that can be controlled. For many kids, their environment, (including their home-life, school, neighborhood, etc.) cannot be controlled either.

A debate exists among psychologists over whether nurture (environment) or nature (genetics) influences personality more.

The children in Baltimore are a prime example of the Nurture theory. They grow up looking to their parents, if they’re present, and streets around them are often filled with violence. In 2014, Baltimore had the 5th highest crime rate in the United States. The environment the children grow up in preaches a culture of survival, even if that means turning to drugs or violence.

Not only would they demean their peers with names I refuse to write, but they would show the same tendencies towards the leaders like myself. At times, one of my fellow missionaries would be on the brink of tears because of their disrespect. It was painful to see that some, but not all, simply did not appreciate any ounce of what we were doing. There was an angry look in their eyes that showed they didn’t seem to care.

The children I worked with weren’t born any less intelligent, they weren’t born angry, they weren’t born without hope. One boy heartbreakingly said that he didn’t even think he’d make it past high school, something that is unheard of in the suburbs. It’s the environment that they’ve been raised in that teaches all of these things; the attitude one has is formed from learned behavior. I couldn’t help but point to the Nelson Mandela quote, “No one is born hating another person… people must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love…” It’s obviously a different context that he’s referring to but the same message stands. No one is born with a personality, it’s knit together by our experiences, our influences, our parents, our friends, and our world as a whole; how one acts is learned.

What could these kids have seen? I spend a few weeks out of my life with them, desperately trying to understand who they are, but at the end of the day do I really know them? Can I ‘blame’ them for reacting predictably to their environment? The attitude and lack of respect isn’t acceptable, but good examples seem hard to come by; I fear the cycle is continuing.

At the end of the day, I love these kids. Each year we go back to the same church to see the same kids; they remember us as we remember them. When we go back throughout the school months, we watch toddlers turn into teenagers. I feel for them, I pray for them, and I wouldn’t go back every year if I didn’t. Walking into the ministry and having the elementary schoolers jump on you, wanting to be held, hugged, and played with makes you think about how long has it been since anyone cared for them in that way. I can only hope that the time that I spent with them will somehow stick so that the ‘cycle’ can be altered. When they go back to school, will they try to be more compassionate in their classrooms? I don’t want to sound naïve, but every missionary hopes that what they have done will have some lasting impact. This year we saw it in the kitchen worker who had gone to camp in elementary school. She’s now in college and told us, “You give me hope for the future.” Who knows what impact our presence has given her?

The picture above shows the kids in Baltimore, they really knew how to spit fire sometimes despite their smiling faces. 15 years from now, they’ll probably still be in Baltimore. They might still go to the same church, or live on the same side of town. I hope they graduate. I hope they get a job that they can enjoy. I hope that they find someone who changes their mentality, or they can recollect some event that changed it; so that they don’t get caught in the inner city attitude. Because 15 years from now they won’t be little kids: they won’t get out easy anymore. And if they face the adult world with a different mindset, I can hope they’ll break the cycle and change the environment for the next generation to come.

Parts Originally Featured on UNICEF’s “Voices of Youth” Blog
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The student news site of Patterson Mill High School
Products of Our Environment: Baltimore