Lunch Buddies 

We met through a "lunch buddy" program, the idea being that men and women from the community might have something to offer a kid at risk. Antwann (not his real name) is clearly at risk. I know that, although there is so much about him that I don't know.

I don't know, for instance, much about his family or the home from which he comes to school each day. He's told me that he has two brothers in their 20s, one of whom is in jail because "he had a fight." He says he has a dad at home, but he doesn't work much because "his feet hurt." All he's said about his mom is that she has a cell phone. But Antwann has also told me in the past that he has a Play Station 2 and an X-Box and loads of games for them, and that he spent his spring break in Florida, Maryland and New Jersey, so I'm sometimes a little dubious of what he tells me. All I really know about his family is that someone signed a form giving the school permission for him to have a lunch buddy.

I don't know much about how Antwann is spending his summer. I know he loves to play with Hot Wheels cars and watches a lot of television. At our last lunch before school ended, he said, "You can come to my house," and wrote down an address on a piece of paper. My heart sank when he handed the paper to me; the street is one I've heard mentioned more than once on the news. This is where he's spending his summer — and, so far, his life: on a street that sometimes makes the news, and not for its beautification projects. I hope and pray that as Antwann grows older he can keep himself off the news.

I don't know what Antwann thinks about white people. I don't recall seeing a white student in my time at his school, or a white staff member. The other lunch buddies and I were the only white faces in the entire cafetorium. Does he think that all white people live in comfort and safety, far from his neighborhood? Someday, I hope to ask him.

But mostly, I don't know much about where Antwann's future will take him. I know he still has his youthful exuberance; I'm not sure how much youthful innocence is left. I know he is a good reader and a smart kid and that he has a school filled with dedicated and loving teachers and other staff members who are doing all they can to help. But I also know that most of those same teachers won't come to Antwann's neighborhood after dark. That's a choice Antwann can't yet make.

I don't know how much hope to have for Antwann. I want to believe that the "American dream" is within his reach, but it's easy to visualize more nightmarish scenarios. I want to be optimistic for who he'll be 10, 20 and more years down the road. I want to hope that he'll have a family someday, the kind you have with a spouse you love and children you're there for, not the kind where you father children with several women and live with none of them. I want to hope that he'll have a job, a career that he feels good about. I want to hope that he'll feel a part of a community he's happy to call home. Right now, I settle for hoping that he can safely play outside on summer evenings and maybe catch a few lightning bugs. But I know that a 6-year-old girl was just recently wounded by a bullet on a playground in a Richmond housing project. I settle for hoping that someone tucks him in bed at night. I settle for hoping that he's getting a little lemon yogurt now and then.

But I don't know.

This much I do know about Antwann, however: He's a good kid and he needs help. And I wonder: What can we do to help him? S

Tom Allen is editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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