There were two recent stories in the news about teens in East Oakland. They are like night and day.
First, the tragically typical. A 14-year-old boy was charged with murder for shooting his 15-year-old friend to death April 21 at Arroyo Viejo Park. The 14-year-old (police have not publicly identified him because he is a juvenile) told the police he was mad at something Shonte Daniels Jr. said to him. He felt "disrespected," so he allegedly took out a gun and shot him.
Then, there was the atypical. Kim and Gloria "Jack" Mejia-Cuellar are twin sisters who grew up in a home where they sometimes worried about having enough to eat after school. They never knew when the water or electricity would be cut off because their mom's earnings as a cashier at the Oakland Zoo sometimes did not stretch far enough.
This fall, both girls are going to Yale University on full scholarships. How do you like that? From Fruitvale straight to the Ivy League.
The twins' parents are immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador who never finished high school. Kim and Jack live in a small apartment with their parents and 6-year-old brother. After reading my colleague Katy Murphy's wonderful story (http://bit.ly/IPUgDV) about this extraordinary pair, I thought about the radically different outcomes for the twins and the two boys. All four came from low-income neighborhoods of color. Yet the girls are graduating first and second in their senior class at Media Academy, part of Fremont High School in Oakland. Shonte meanwhile, joined the ever growing number of young black males across the U.S. shot and killed in street violence -- most often by other young black males. The 14-year-old will spend who knows how many years incarcerated.
Why such polar opposite outcomes for these children?
It can be traced directly back to choices made and actions taken -- or not taken. Both by the adults who were responsible for them and by the children themselves.
Let's look at the two radically different scenarios.
The boys lived in Oakland. According to police, there is no record of either one attending an Oakland public school. If they were indeed truant, they made a choice not to go to school.
The 14-year-old chose to get a gun from somewhere. Both boys chose to be hanging out in a public park at 2 a.m. Where were the adults whose responsibility it was to be supervising these children?
It was 3 a.m. when police arrested the 14-year-old near Eastmont Police Station -- still carrying the weapon police say he used to kill Shonte.
Now let's look at the girls.
They grew up in a technically two-parent household but say their father has been largely absent from their daily lives.
They noticed at an early age going through school that teachers set low standards for kids like them -- poor, Hispanic and female. But they chose not to be limited by societal expectations of what they could achieve. They chose to study hard and push themselves, even though the popular kids were cutting class and dropping out of school. They chose to steer clear of the all-too-common pitfalls, such as teen pregnancy, for girls growing up in urban communities. Instead of hanging out on the street, they hung out at the public library. They joined their school newspaper and the debate club. It was lonely going against the grain but they resisted the social pressure to conform to behavior that would ultimately lead to a dead end.
Their mother, Maria Mejia, had quit school after becoming pregnant. She had had a hard life and was determined that her children would have the opportunities she never did. She did not sit around saying, "Oh woe is me, I'm poor with three kids to raise. I might as well just give up."
She chose to be involved in her children's education. She asked teachers to give her daughters extra homework when she felt they weren't being challenged. From the time they were little, she chose to take them to the public library to read books she couldn't afford to buy.
It's not politically correct -- especially in Oakland -- to talk about individual responsibility when talking about poor people of color. Some elected officials and people in the community insist that the answer to violent crime and cyclical poverty is to give people jobs and social programs.
While those things are certainly important, people also have to be willing to take advantage of the many opportunities that are out there.