Wednesday, March 05, 2008

City vs. suburban life

There have been two front page articles in the Boston Globe these past two days that have given me pause. On Tuesday, it was an article about teens in inner city Boston who describe the violence that takes place daily on a bus they need to take to get to school. This morning, it was an article about helping teens reduce stress through relaxation techniques, and the article compared the stress experienced by students in Boston and students in my suburban town, Needham (somehow, little unassuming Needham manages to get in the paper quite often these days - not sure why).

Here is a sample from the first article:

Tiara Amarante's bus ride to school is a daily exercise in dodging danger.

On MBTA Bus 23 - which winds past storefront churches, pizza shops, and boarded-up buildings - drug dealers push their wares and passengers fight over money, sometimes with knives. Last March, a teenager was fatally shot on the bus.

Amarante, 15, has learned how to survive the ride. She has no choice; she must ride Bus 23 from her home in Dorchester to the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury where she is a freshman.

She sits close to one of the two exits, so she can get out quickly if a passenger pulls out a gun or knife. When other riders begin to scream or argue, she casts her eyes downward: to stare is to ask for trouble. At night, when she is coming home from her civic issues meeting after school, she waits for the bus at the stops with the brightest street lighting or where police cars usually idle.

Last month, Amarante and nine other teenagers who take Bus 23 to school or to get around their neighborhood decided to do something about it. They would survey other passengers, document their stories, and try to persuade MBTA officials to take action.

I've worked in inner city Boston as part of different jobs for years, and my parents grew up there (as did my husband until he was about 10) so I feel connected to that part of Boston in a way that perhaps others don't. It really bugs me that this violence is known and is allowed to continue; that kids are affected by it daily; and that no one is taking action except kids. If this type of thing took place in Needham, you can be sure it would be dealt with pronto. But that's another story, right?

Here's a sample from today's article on stress:

As Andre Zayas lay on the hard gym floor, the 14-year-old from Dorchester struggled to clear his mind of his myriad burdens. He ached for a friend who was recently shot to death. He worried about finding a job to help his single mother pay the household bills. And in just a few hours, his project on the 1930s was due in humanities class, and he had not finished.

Next to him, Chanel Peguero closed her eyes and imagined graduating from high school in four years with a scholarship, the only way she would be able to afford college. The honor roll student cannot wait to escape her home in a South End housing development where her sleep is punctured by sirens, gunshots, and arguing adults.

The teenagers, among two dozen Fenway High School freshmen arrayed in a semicircle beneath a basketball hoop, breathed deeply as a stress-reduction trainer instructed them on how to relax. New Age music floated through the gymnasium.

"Allow intruding thoughts to pass like clouds in the sky," said the trainer, Rana Chudnofsky, her soothing voice rising just above a whisper. "Take a minivacation from your day."

Mind-body relaxation training, already popular among New England prep schools, is seeping into public high schools as principals and teachers worry about students' ever-mounting stress. In the most widescale effort in the state, specialists from Massachusetts General Hospital have begun fanning out among urban and suburban high schools, including Boston, Needham, and Brookline, to help students cope.

The article continues, describing the types of stress suburban kids experience (pressure to get into a good college, various after school activities) versus the types of stresses inner city kids experience (violence, single parent families, taking care of younger siblings, helping pay for family expenses).

It just isn't the same kind of stress.

The divide between the haves and the have-nots in our community is huge, and these articles illustrate it poignantly. I'm not sure what I can do, or what anyone can do, but someone has to do something. Teaching inner city kids to "reduce their stress" through relaxation techniques is all well and good, but in reality, their stress needs to be reduced through elimination of the violence and the financial and social problems in their lives. These are much bigger issues to tackle. In the meantime, take a deep breath, and relax....