Love: The Most Powerful Force In Existence For Changing A Kid’s Life


In my ten years teaching at a continuation high school, I have been to two funerals for students who died tragically. One was a gang related shooting. The other was a pool drowning at a party filled with teenagers to drunk to notice. Our school has also had a number of students survive shootings off campus although one was right in front of the school. Guns, violence, drugs and alcohol are simply a way of life for many of the students I teach. Many of them come to school everyday clothed in domestic instability, lack of love, and lack of hope. Consequently my first priority when they walk in my classroom door is to let them know that I love them and to take the ones who are especially sick in heart and spirit and listen to their words, their body language, their exhaustion.

As Maslow helped us understand, a person cannot attend to higher order needs such as academics, goal setting, expression of potential, possible self-actualization, until the more basic physical and emotional needs for food, shelter, security and love have been met. I cannot expect a student to listen and learn when they’ve been homeless and sleepless for three days. Such a teenager doesn’t need systems of equations. They need someone to make them believe they matter.

It is very clear that our culture is desperately sick because the symptoms are readily displayed in our children. But I’m not here to reiterate what has already been said about the tragedies that strike spasmodically through an ailing society. I want to share the fact that in spite of the disadvantages my students face, 100 to 120 graduate every year, some being the first in their families to graduate from high school. At our school of 500, 100 to 120 a year have a real chance for stability and success and the potential to give future children the safety and love they didn’t have. But it all begins with love. The kids that make it have had some stable, healthy adult in their lives extend the love that all children crave and need to keep from becoming another spiritual casualty being hauled off to prison.

One of my students, whom I’ll call Homie, was a hard-core gangster from Compton. He told me his homies called him “trigger” because he was quick with a gun. Homie was one of those hardened street soldiers who told you straight up if he liked you and told you to “F-off” if he didn’t. If these kids don’t like you, forget about them doing any work in your class. For many of these kids doing classwork is not about their future but is a sign of respect for their teacher. If you don’t win that respect early , you probably never will.

Homie was one of my algebra students and was sharper academically than you’d expect from a “gangsta.” He picked up things quickly enjoying the accolades I’d give him when he’d finished his work with a big, beaming smile saying, “This shit is easy Mr. L!” It was so easy for him he’d finish in ten minutes then give the answers to his homie Gustavo who couldn’t make heads or tails of anything we were doing in class. I had to remind him to explain what he was doing for Gustavo so that he could actually learn something.

Gustavo was a darker spirit. He wasn’t academically bright but he had the kind of smarts that would make for a pretty good con man.  He was Homie’s best friend at school and the two of them made a strange mix in class of street humor and laughter with a large dose of violence brewing just below the surface. I loved these guys and they respected me but I knew that on the street they would pull the trigger on a rival gang member without a second thought. It’s strange to be helping a 16 year old with his algebra in a comfortable classroom knowing that once this kid left campus he was a potential killer without an ounce of sympathy or conscience. Death was just a matter of honor and business.

One Thursday Gustavo didn’t show up to school and the news reached us quickly that he’d been shot and killed because he’d been seeing the wrong girl. She was the “property” of a rival gang and a student at our school who had to be removed because she had identified the killer to the police. Homie obviously took it extremely hard. His demeanor changed completely and he shut down in class. I knew he needed time to grieve but as the weeks wore on I sensed that he had given up. So I pulled him aside and asked,”Why are you giving up? Do you think Gustavo would want you to give up?” He looked me in the eyes and said, “Mr. L. it doesn’t matter. I’ll be dead in a couple of years anyway. My life is with my homies, you know? That’s just the way it is.” Nothing I could say changed him. He finally stopped showing up to school and it broke my heart.

A few months later I saw him on campus. After a big hug with a “Hey wassup!” I looked at him and noticed a change. A burden had been lifted from him and I could see in his young eyes a real happiness. He said,”Mr. L. I’m gonna be a dad.” I shook his shoulders and said, No way dude! You’re messin’ with me!” He smiled and said,” No really. The baby’s due in six months.” Trying to be positive I said, “Come back to school and I think you’ll make a great dad.” He got serious,”Mr. L. I’m going to church. I don’t wanna bang no more. I gotta get my life together. I wanna be a good dad.” It was hard for me not to break down right there.

He couldn’t come back to school because he needed to work and had chosen to try for the GED exam to get his high school diploma. From what I’ve heard through the grapevine he hasn’t moved back to his hood and is still working and going to church. I like to think that the love we showed Homie at our school made a difference, made him believe that there was a different road one could take that didn’t lead to death in a hail of bullets. I don’t know if we made the difference or not, only God knows. But we have to have faith and remember not to lose hope. If we lose hope, these kids stand no chance.

Kids like Homie keep me going. They are why I step into that classroom everyday and why I would take a bullet for one of them as I would for my own son. We grieve for the ones we lose but we do not have the luxury to lose focus and energy because we have to pour love into the lives of the kids in front of us without fail.

Again, we cannot lose hope. We must renew and strengthen our commitment to love the kids who are hardest to love because they are the most damaged in soul, because they are killers, because they know nothing but rage. In my 21 years of teaching I’ve seen such kids respond to a love which no one had shown them before. Some change. Some don’t because the damage is so deep it requires a transformative miracle. But I’ve seen that too. I’m here to tell you from first hand experience that forgiveness, non-judgement, and unconditional love are the most powerful forces we have to change these kids and it works.

Love and warmth to all of you.

If you want to see this kind of love in action read

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion


6 Comments on “Love: The Most Powerful Force In Existence For Changing A Kid’s Life”

  1. janrssor December 23, 2012 at 11:06 PM #

    Touching story. I worked with ex-cons from a NY prison that teaches lens grinding. They all seemed like big pussy cats. I had lunch with armed robbers and guys convicted of killing. Big guys too. My dad hired them out of Wallkill prison to give them a chance. We never had problems that I knew of at least. Unfortunately the business only made it two years I later worked with other wallkill grads who were opticians; one became my best friend for several years till he moved to an Island and we lost touch. His name is Tommy and he told me what it was like growing up poor with no real parents and tough kids to stand up to daily. Tommy was a great optician, he was fast and skilled . He could do the work of two average guys. They paid him well in the “schlock house” we were stuck working in. I asked Tommy if he could stay straight and not go back to armed robbery. He said, “Doc, with what they pay me, this is armed robbery!”. Economic opportunity, education, and a chance to earn self respect had made a big difference in his life. I pray he is since rich and retired! Janr

  2. janrssor December 23, 2012 at 11:06 PM #

    Reblogged this on Janr Ssor.

  3. cookiesrainandlove December 25, 2012 at 9:23 AM #

    Thank you for sharing. It is so true that only God can change the hardest of hearts…

    • Robert-preneur January 2, 2013 at 8:38 PM #

      Yes. We were made for love and when it is not given everything goes wrong. Thank you for your thought.

  4. Malcolm Greenhill December 27, 2012 at 3:30 AM #

    Robert, thank you. I really do admire your work with these kids. This was a powerful story.

    • Robert-preneur January 2, 2013 at 8:49 PM #

      Thank you Malcolm. But I often feel inadequate to the task. Yet victories like this keep me going day to day. Hope all is well with you.

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