Once Expelled and Incarcerated, Chicago Teen Fights to Turn Life Around

September 21, 2017

Statistics suggest that James will lead a life of crime. His record dates to elementary school, when he was expelled for repeated offenses that culminated in James pushing the school’s principal. He called it an accident in the heat of a fight with another student. They called it assault.


With that, the process of expulsion began for the 10-year-old. “That really hurt my mom,” he laments. “She wants me to do better.”


For the years that followed, it seemed that James would live up to society’s expectation of him. “I’ve been picked up by the police, like, 10 times for little stuff like busting windows,” he explains matter-of-factly. “I don’t know what made me act like that. I just had a lot of anger in me, I guess.”


Much of James’s anger stems from the usual culprits for teens on Chicago’s West Side. Growing up fatherless in a neighborhood afflicted with poverty and violent crime forces young people to adapt. Addled by undiagnosed trauma, with constant reminders of the dangers around them, kids like James may “self-medicate” by shutting down their empathy and acting on impulse.


But there’s an added element to James’s backstory. His father is incarcerated—imprisoned for murder when James was barely one year old.


“I try not to think about it. He wasn’t thinking about me when he did what he did. He knew he had a son. He knew what he was risking.” His tone struggles to hold back hints of contempt, betraying his care-free façade.


James’s life seems to swing on a pendulum. On one end, he strives to make his mother proud and avoid his father's mistakes. On the other, he becomes trapped in fits of anger and impulsivity, risking his chance at a bright future.


The pendulum took a violent swing in December of 2016, when in separate incidents, James suffered the loss of a cousin and close friend to violence. Eyes cast downward, he explains, “That took me to a dark place. I don’t want to go back to that place again.”


He will not talk about the details of what happened, but the deaths of his cousin and friend led to a 6-month spiral that ended in his incarceration. He finished his stint in juvenile detention resolved that he would never put his mother through such a troubling experience again.


James entered high school at DRW College Prep in the Homan Square neighborhood of Chicago this fall. He acknowledges that change is a process, not an event.


"School is challenging and fun. The work is hard, but I think about how I can make my momma proud."


With his mind set on improving his life, James entered The Bloc, where he receives boxing training, homework help, and will soon be matched with a mentor.


James, who wants to become a dentist, shares that he "expected The Bloc to help me be a better boxer and person." So far, he says the program has more than kept its promise.


The Bloc has a mission to make sure kids like James exceed society’s expectation of them by inspiring them to live up to the motto, "Excellence is a Habit." With The Bloc, James will be expected to train, study, and think like a leader. With time and guidance, new habits will be created.


“I think that’s why I need boxing. I know the harder I work, the better I’ll get, and the further I’ll go. I’m ready to do better.”


And The Bloc is here to support him.


The Bloc is a 501c3 nonprofit organization that mentors and tutors West Side teens after attracting them with the sport of boxing. To make a tax-deductible contribution to our program, click the "Donate" button at the top of this page.


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