Out of harm's way

Participating in Memory Bridge seems to bring out the softer side of even the toughest high school students. “They turn into different kids,” says Kristy Mixon, an English teacher and Memory Bridge instructor at Percy L. Julian High School on Chicago’s gang-ridden south side.

This is a rough school where students are banned from carrying cell phones because they use them to arrange fights. During the past year, Julian became something of a national symbol for the problem of high-school gun violence after a teenaged gang member opened fire on a city bus that was taking students home from school. One Julian student was killed and several were wounded. The next day nearly 50 percent of the student body stayed away from school, fearing retaliation. The event prompted CNN’s Anderson Cooper to do a one-hour special examining why Chicago’s school kids are being killed in such alarming numbers – 32 during the 2006-2007 school year.

But the gentleness of the Memory Bridge students during buddy sessions belies the thick skins they have had to develop. The strict social boundaries that define these kids’ world seem to disappear, and everyone is a friend. Although profanity is the norm inside and outside of school, they speak to their buddies with complete respect. They are fiercely loyal to their buddies, certain that “there’s nothing wrong” with them. They want to bring them flowers, but don’t have the budget. One girl doesn’t want her buddy to know that she has been suspended for fighting – although she is quite vocal about her life in every other situation. Several students are disappointed that they can’t be in the program for longer than one semester.

Mixon conjectures that the students feel safe at the nursing home with their buddies – safe from being hurt, shot or threatened, safe from being disrespected, judged or pigeon-holed, safe to be kids.

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