The most expensive T-shirt I own

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I didn’t buy this t-shirt nor did it come with a price tag affixed. But I know that it’s the most expensive piece of clothing I own.

I don’t treat it as such. I don’t handle it gingerly, afraid that it might tear at the seams or unravel at the edges. I don’t wash it irregularly so that its painted letters don’t quickly fade. In fact, I wear it often and with pride because, as I mentioned, it is the most valuable piece of clothing I own.

When I was a youth worker for the City of Boston, I served every day at a community center in a neighborhood I had never been to before, not even driven through once. I didn’t know anyone who lived there, in the patchwork of tidy triple-deckers and eateries that ranged from Salvadorean pupusa shops to Italian eateries to Chinese restaurants to Vietnamese pho houses. The neighborhood comprised effectively an island and most of the kids who grew up there knew one another. They confessed they didn’t bother skipping school because someone would see them on the corner and call their mother.

Most of the youth I worked with lived in a housing development complex. I had never visited a housing development, never walked through the block after block of unimaginatively designed structures and marveled at how there was no green space, how there were so many children living throughout the complex and yet there was no space for them to play that was not concrete.

So the kids came to the community center where I was based, where I did a job for which I received no training, in a place I wasn’t so much as even acquainted with, with a population of kids whose lives were unfathomably different than anything I had known. In my arrogance, I thought that I was the good thing that had come their way. A college graduate, a creative program person, a self-proclaimed lover of kids.

I did everything wrong. I presumed when I should have asked. I got angry when I should have laughed. I muscled through on my own when I should have sought help. Most of the programs I ran were a bust. The boys humored me, the girls came and asked me questions about sex. I thought I had what they needed, if I could just organize a better program of activities. If only they would come every day, I could meet their needs. My bosslady was so patient with me. She would say, “The only problem with you is that yaw not from heeyah.” I laughed and only sort of knew what she meant. I started asking a music shop if they would let me take their leftover sample CDs to give away as prizes. The kids started looking at me like a prize dispenser, popping them out like Pez. I made $22,000 a year before taxes. I still thought it was about me.

During an outdoor program I organized, there were a ton of water balloons which, since these were teenagers, became a ton of water buckets filled and thrown. I didn’t have a change of clothes. Someone handed me this Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, one from a stack that were just hanging around in the closet.

By the time I was a year into the job, I knew that I would be getting married, that I would be moving on. I took the LSAT with my co-worker Kamau. We knew we couldn’t stay making the money we were making. We wanted to do the most good.

After I got back from my honeymoon, I started interviewing for other jobs. I had deferred law school but I still wanted get home earlier in the day to spend time with my hew husband. I soon found 9-5 administrative job that I could walk to from our apartment.

On my last day working at the community center, I had not wanted to make a big deal about my departure. I wasn’t sad that I was leaving, but I was sad that I wouldn’t see how the kids would grow. I wouldn’t know who went to college and who had a growth spurt over the summer. I wouldn’t hear their voices change and watch their girlfriends change and offer to drive them home when they didn’t have enough change for the bus fare.

On my last day, only one kid came back to say good-bye. He had been by far one of the hardest kids to reach. He hated school and just wanted to play basketball. He seemed to break one girl’s heart on Monday and have found a new one to break by Tuesday. I didn’t understand his goals; I didn’t understand how I could help him.

But he came back to say good-bye. He sat with me in the office, his pristine baseball hat with the manufacturer’s silver sticker still on the underside of the wide brim. He looked up from under that wide brim and asked me about my plans. I told him I thought I’d probably go back to school so that I could eventually teach. He nodded and bounced a basketball under the table. We hugged it out and he went to go shoot hoops.

Whenever I wear my Mayor’s Cup t-shirt, I think of what it represents. I think how it was handed to me when I had nothing else to wear because I was a pilgrim. I remember how hard it was to earn respect as a pilgrim. I think how I’d never had to learn how to love kids who were hard to love before. I remember how after nearly two years, they returned that love to me. At least one did. He handed it to me like it was a free t-shirt. One that I would be so grateful to receive, one that still makes me feel so privileged and proud, not only because I got to love but was loved well in the end.

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To the young friend who can’t take more tomorrows like today

To my dear friend whom I’ve never met but whom I know so well:

Your life right now as a young person is anguish, yes? Maybe you are bullied or depressed or abused or addicted or caught up in a shame spiral that keeps pirouetting and shows no signs of slowing down. There is no exit from this ride. Today blends into tomorrow and on and on the days and nights blur and you push through in autopilot, three turns to the right, two turns to the left, over and over and over, you wait for the click on your combination lock. What’s in that locker you’ve got packed so full and so well? Is it a relationship you can’t get over, even though you know it wasn’t for your benefit? Is it tension at home that won’t evaporate? Is it a looming decision that seems to eclipse all the other things that are meant to bring you joy? Is it the sense of belonging that everyone else seems to have but for you, it’s always fleeting, always vanishing like sand held in your hand? Is it all of this and so much more, and you just can’t take any more tomorrows if they are like today? The heaviness, the sourness, the emptiness, the pain.

My friend, I see you. I feel all that. I have felt all of that.

I want you to know that I’m sorry. This is a hard season of life for you and I am sorry for all the crap you have to navigate. A show* that I loved, one that was only around for one season (adding injury to insult over the anguish of being young) had a main character who said, “When your parents ask you how was school, it’s like they’re asking you how was the drive-by shooting?” Just existing in this hard season is subjecting yourself to all manner of assaults and offenses you don’t expect. You are subjected to the drive-by, maybe multiple times a day.

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The real drive-by is not the pain that people or situations in our lives cause, though. Rather, it’s the lies we choose to believe. And that’s where I want to tell you not to buy the lie. This is your greatest weapon in the battle.

So much of the counsel we give young people points your focus in the wrong direction. We tell you how bad the bullies must feel about themselves to have to prey on someone like you. We tell you not to get involved, not to feel so sorry for yourself–think of all the kids who would kill to have what you have. That still doesn’t advance your game piece very far, though, does it?

If you were really involved in a battle, you wouldn’t spend all your time looking to the opposition, studying their weapons, memorizing their tactics, predicting how they will plot their course and none of the time training yourself, right? You would build up the muscle and agility to fight back, or perhaps strategize a plan that would circumnavigate the enemy all together.

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I don’t know much about fighting, but I do know about enemies. I know about the enemy that lies to our minds and hearts about who we are and what we’re worth. I know about an enemy that used to push me onto a hamster wheel of busy, keeping so busy all the time with two jobs and a full load of high school classes and leadership in all the clubs and a saint-load of community service. The busyness became my identity. I was The Busy Girl, so talented with all the flaming torches I was juggling, the one relied upon, the one who had no time to reflect or eat or be anything but kind and dependable on the outside, whereas on the inside I was a decaying sack of depression, anxiety, and serious feels that I could never be enough–not for my parents or teachers or people I called friend–not even for God. I had bought the lie that I was not enough and needed to work to be valuable.

The good news, friend, is that just because you bought the lie, you don’t have to keep it. However, you will have to fight to return it. And the fight will make you stronger for future battles. The enemies that lie about who we are and what we’re worth never go away. Seasons will pass and life will not get easier. It will increase in depth and complexity. But training yourself to spot the lies will better equip you for the battles ahead.

For most of us, friend, training ourselves to refuse to buy the lies starts small. You are going to just want to put on that brand new life of Not Buying Lies and to coast freely down the hill where all the other rah-rahs are in a huddle cheering for everyone UP WITH TRUTH! DOWN WITH LIES! The reality is that sometimes you are going to have to strive to wake up and pledge to not buy any lies about your worth today. Or maybe to pledge not to buy any lies for just the next hour. Or next minute. Or next fourteen seconds. It might sound like this:

I am part of an amazing creation. I am made for more than this. I am loved. I refuse to believe anything to the contrary. For the next four seconds. Amen.

Or your fight might look like a Napoleonic side-eye. Get thee behind me, lies.

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Or a MCG power stance. No lies here. Only Superstars.

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Or a Drakeoneon dance. That can only mean one thing.

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I wish I could tell you, friend, that you could perfect your stance or just Drake dance through life and lies will have no more power over you, but the lies continue. Sometimes they slip them in our coffee or sometimes enemies visit us just before we’re catching sleep. When the lies stack up and seem to hop into our shopping cart, remember that you are not alone. You are never alone. Call on your friend, call on your Higher Power to get in your corner and speak truth back into your life. I did this just the other day. I was simply not strong enough on my own two legs so I had a friend pray me out of a hard place. Enemy lies are strong but truth and love are stronger.

Young friend, I so wish for you a more peaceful season. I hope in the meantime that you grow strong and brave on the battlefield. I pray that you may stay strong and brave for the next day, the next hour, the next fourteen seconds.

Your friend,
Kendra

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Racism and a lack of imagination

The last summer of college I spent at home, I hostessed at a chain restaurant that is known in Ohio for serving breakfast all day.  Until that summer, I didn’t know that there were people on earth who ate more than one meal a day at the same restaurant. As it turns out, the usuals at this restaurant often took 2-3 meals a day there. They considered the waitstaff family, their usual tables were just extensions of their homes.

During one of my first shifts, the wait staff alerted me to one of the usuals. Val was pegged as “difficult.” I quickly learned what qualified Val as difficult. She came in every evening with her two children. She rarely ordered a meal for herself. She ordered kids’ meals and ate their leftovers. She sent food back that wasn’t to her satisfaction.

I learned that these were high crimes in restaurantville. There is an unwritten code of conduct for being a usual. It requires that one runs up a decent tab and doesn’t complain.

I also learned that the penalties for those who broke the code of conduct are just a little bit more severe if your waitstaff is all white and you’re aren’t white. And Val and her two children? Were black.

I was intimidated by Val. The first time I sat her, I learned my lesson. I started to lead her and her children, with kids’ menu packets in tow, toward the back of the restaurant. “Noooope nope no! Not sitting back there. Not sitting in the back of the bus.”

Got it. So I was not to sit Val in the back. But if you’ve ever made your living by playing Tetris with tables, you know that sometimes you can’t honor every request. You don’t want to slam certain waitstaffers with a fresh crop of tables all at once or there will be hell to pay. I began to perceive Val as a mosquito in the summer. She was always there, but if I protected myself, she wouldn’t bite.

The waitstaff groaned about Val in the breakroom. How the manager coddled her. How she tipped poorly. How she sent food back.

Val came in most nights with her children. I don’t know if she was married or divorced. Here is what I do remember about my personal encounters with her besides the mistake of seating her in the back: She was polite and quiet. She was always dressed in professional attire as though she was coming from work. She always had a paperback book with her and occasionally would sit reading it at her table while her children ate their meals.

One of the middle-aged hostesses once remarked, “Val is very well-educated.”

I remember wondering why Val was the only customer that whole summer I ever heard consistent complaints about, or about the fact that she was “very well-educated.”

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Fifteen years later, I am sitting in my work clothes at a chain restaurant. I am sitting across from my two children, happily occupied by their kiddie menu crossword puzzles. I take the chance for the first time all day to open up a book for pleasure. My husband is not with us as he works most evenings. I am relieved to not have to cook and am reluctant to buy my children their own separate meals when I know I will be finishing their leftovers.

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Fifteen years later and I am Val. Except I am not a usual and no one comments on my education level when I bust out my book at a restaurant. When I misplace my gift card, no one questions my intent or ability to pay. When I have to run and get my wallet in the car (long day), our waitress offers to watch my children. I am Val except I am white and therefore I can only fathom how Val felt.

Fifteen years will not absolve me, though. Why did it take me half of my life to understand a faithful patron who wanted what she paid for and who wanted to model for her children the service they should expect in a restaurant?

In other words, why did I lack imagination 15 years ago? Why did I have to wait fifteen years to experience a taste of what Val faced (and chose to face) each day?

The problem we have in dissolving the -isms that poison our lives is that we are lazy imaginaries. Because we are carnivores, we can’t imagine what might be difficult for vegetarians at barbecues. Because we never struggle to find shoes in our size, surely those who do are crybabies.  Inconvenience sparks us to change. Make my life difficult and I will modify my systems.

The difficulty in having a lack of difficulty is perhaps the definition of white privilege.

I pray for difficulties. I desire a better imagination. But most of all, I strive for a world where I don’t have to fathom any of this, because neither does Val.

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