David didn't look like a juvenile delinquent. Lean, with shaggy dark hair, he should have been a typical high school student, worrying about passing his Chemistry test, or figuring out how to get a girl's phone number so he could text her. But David didn't worry about those things because David kept skipping school. His mother brought him into the L.A. County youth program called VIDA (Vital Interaction and Directional Alternatives) several months ago because she was terrified that her son would get more involved with the gangs that were so prevalent in their crime-ridden, south Los Angeles neighborhood. But despite joining the program, David still kept cutting school and hanging out with true delinquents.
As one of the developers of VIDA, L.A. County Deputy Sheriff Mark Cripe knew exactly what could happen if David didn't change. He would inevitably get sucked into the world of drugs and violence. There was no good outcome.
But David didn't seem to care. No matter how many times an adult argued, pleaded, yelled at him, he just stood there, stoically. As Mark looked at David, he realize he needed a different approach to just lecturing David on how he was going down the wrong path. The key, Mark realized was to do more asking than telling.
Why don't you want to go to school? Mark asked. School's not important, David replied. Mark resisted the knee-jerk reaction to enumerate the benefits of school, and instead remembered his intention to ask more than to tell.
Why isn't school important? Mark asked.
Because I'm going to either be in jail or dead in a few years anyway, David responded. Why would these next few years of school matter?
This hit Mark in the gut, the idea that a 16-year-old so matter-of-factly saw a future so bleak, there was no point in even trying.
It made sense, though. In David's neighborhood, the young men joined gangs and eventually ended up in jail or dead. Attending classes, graduating from high school didn't really mean anything. It didn't change the inevitable dead end fate.
Mark now looked at David with new eyes. Now he didn't see a juvenile delinquent or a typical high school student. He saw a pragmatist. One who was resigned to his fate. But what David didn't see was the possibility of a different future.
Mark felt a stirring in his chest, his protective instincts unfurling. Is this the future that you want, he asked David. For the first time, David looked confused. This was his life. He never thought he had a choice.
He had to help David dream, Mark realized. David, and kids like him, don't instinctively dream of failing. They're taught that inadvertently or intentionally, through life experiences and the reactions to them. Our job, Mark thought, is to help them remember their dreams and help them believe they can accomplish those dreams.
If you had another option, what would you want to do? Mark asked David. Where would you want to be in five years? Then the question is, how do we help you get there?
And for the first time in years, David considered his life and realized it just might have promise.
Mark Cripe is currently writing his first book with RTC--a combination of memoir and lessons from his 23 years as an L.A. County Deputy Sheriff and developer of the VIDA program and from his experiences as a parent.