It is incumbent on us as a society to step in and provide the programs needed to save these children before they are in the ‘system’.
By Teddy Atlas
He was small, even for an eight year old. His anger could fill a century. I will not refer to him by name, because who he is doesn’t matter, what he has become does.
The first time I met him was a few days before Christmas at what is referred to as an at-risk school. “Title One” — according to NYC official designation. Families making under $35,000 a year. Poverty. I was there with members of the The Dr. Atlas Foundation, which I founded 23 years ago to help people in need, who in many cases had nowhere else to go. The ones who fall between the cracks.
Our reason for being there on this day was to deliver toys for the students. We had come to understand that in many cases, the toy we gave would be the only one received by these children. So as an extra perk we brought along Santa to make the deliveries himself. A relationship of trust had been formed with the school’s administrators.
Before the giving began, the principal — a very structured and concerned man — would notify me of a group of “hardened kids”. When first hearing this my mind went to the movie “Alcatraz”, the once infamous prison, which housed the most incorrigible of all who broke the rules of society. The most “hardened”. As my mind left “The Rock” and drifted back to the elementary school, the head man was asking if I would speak with them separately before we began handing out the gifts. Sure, but I need some information first. Name, ages and what they did wrong. It began like the reading of a rap sheet. I imagined Peter Pan in handcuffs.
The most troubled one of them all I was told was the age of eight, and had already been thrown out of two schools, and the number was about to become three. The attempted stabbing of a student had brought him here.
“What had he recently done?” I asked.
“He sent a teacher to the infirmary.”
“For what?” I shot back.
“Throwing and hitting her with a chair.”
As I turned to get a look at the baby perp, I saw a wall minus a lineup. I followed the path the principal’s eyes had provided to a lower part of the wall. There he was. As I got ready to go over to him I asked for some quick background. The principle knowing that Santa was on deck, gave it to me straight and fast.
“Mother is on the streets,” — code for prostitution — “and has 15 other children by various men, and at least four of her kids were incarcerated.” He added, “We are fairly certain he has been sexually assaulted at various times by his mother’s visitors.”
It felt like being hit with a clean stomach punch. Or a not so clean lower blow. When I began to walk over to speak to him the educator softly, but firmly held my arm and quietly said, he won’t respond, won’t make eye contact. He doesn’t look up when men speak. “Why would he look up to a man?”, I thought to myself.
Holograms of prisons no longer joked in my head. It had the feel of going to see the children’s character, ‘Barney’, after he had been mugged. He was so short, I tried to imagine how he launched a chair high and far enough to send someone for stitches. Then I saw the source of his strength, it wasn’t in the shoulders, although there was a certain sturdiness to them even with his small frame. The power emanated from his rage. It was like the explosion of heat that leaps on you when opening the door of a furnace.
At the same time I could hear a sound. A sort of muffled growl. I thought of my two and half year old grandson when he pretends to be a tiger. There was no pretending here. It had a wounded guttural sound to it. Part anger, part pain. Having trained fighters for over four decades, I had experience with kids from difficult backgrounds, lightless places.
But this was different. He was so young, yet so worn and tarnished by life. Like an old fighter. I recognized or instinctively felt there was an advanced intelligence. Innate by nature, and beyond his years. I felt that I needed to be quicker and more direct than I normally would be with someone this age. It seemed like I had a polygraph strapped to me, and he was ready to read it. I might have to sound in a way I tried to avoid sounding like. Someone bragging. But I needed him to buy in. And I needed it now. There would be no second chance. “What can you do for me?” That was where it needed to start. I bent my knees, lowered myself. At that moment, I was in a corner, during a fight. It could have been any of the hundreds I had worked over the years; Moorer-Holyfield, Bradley-Pacquiao. I had one minute to say something that might help win or lose this.
The scouting report had been good. He looked into the floor. I didn’t yell but I spoke strong, as if speaking over the noise of a fight crowd. “I make World Champions,” I began. “Fighters who go around the world and eat in restaurants.”
I had recognized what I thought was a slightly malnutritioned or stunted body. It just fit and made sense. So I told him if he listened, if somehow I got involved in his life, he would eat better. Eyes still down, but I knew he heard me.
I couldn’t help but think with all the clichés, all the mixes of words in my business, this was a ‘hungry fighter’, literally. I reflected for a second that with all the hundreds I had trained, he might be the first that actually fit that term.
Then sensing time was running short, as if an official from the commission was yelling; ‘seconds out’, I got ready to finish. “I run boxing gyms and if I want to I can bring you into one.”
As part of the social programs my foundation ran, we were funding three boxing gyms and learning centers (we hired a certified teacher to tutor the kids; that was the goal, boxing was the carrot) all of them in tough areas.
One was a few blocks from the housing projects where he lived. The only problem was you needed to be twelve to get in. I wasn’t about to let that slow me down; after all, I ran the place. It was after that last sentence, that the unthinkable, yet the hoped for happened. The kid who never looked at men, lifted his head and said; ‘You care?” Perfect, I thought, of course that would be what he’d say, what else would he ask? As if the fate of the world, or at least this kid depended on it, I searched for the right words.
The one that could bring a win. “Only if you do.” That was it. I felt like Angelo Dundee telling Sugar Ray Leonard after the 12th round with Tommy Hearns; “You’re blowing it son, I’m telling you you’re blowing it.” Leonard then left the corner to go and find Hearns, to make sure he would not take anything more from him.
This kid, who threw chairs like left hooks, was ready to also go out there and to find someone, anyone, everyone who had taken from him, who had stolen pieces of him. His eyes locked on to mine like a miniature Sonny Liston, as he said, “Yeah!”
It was like hearing Michael Buffer say, “And New Champion of the World.” That one word was all we needed, all I was waiting to hear. That simple slang version of ‘Yes’, meant we had a chance to win the title. Or at least fight for it. As Santa and I left the school, I immediately called Sharon, my Executive Director at the Foundation. We needed to start figuring out how we were going to adjust the rules of our gyms, and make this happen. The first problem was the gyms did not open until 5:00pm, and when they did they quickly became crowded. If we changed the rules to allow someone this young to come in it had to be at an earlier time, when the gyms were empty. This way he could get the attention he needed and get out early enough to be home by 5.
The next problem; who would get him there and get him back. It was only several blocks from his home, but it was a rough neighborhood, and he was eight. The other potential obstacle was that my foundation was already spending $100,000 a year to run the three gyms, which included paying the coaches and a teacher. I did not want to now have to also pay coaches to train at a separate time. Also, it would be difficult to train one kid by himself and keep him interested.
So we decided to begin a new program that would run from 3:00pm after school until 5:00pm, and we would have those other ’problem kids’ who the principal had lined up against the wall that day, be a part of it. And as for the cost of it, we would have some of the older kids who trained there and had benefited from the gyms, give back by coming early to teach these kids. And who better to do it, than people who had themselves been saved by these programs, and could relate to these youngsters. Now there was only one thing left to work out, who will get them there and back.
A phone call into the 120th police precinct took care of it. Community Affairs would have a policeman, in this case it turned out to be a policewoman, a Sergeant to be exact, who would use one of their vans to pick up the kids after school each day, take them, wait for them and bring them home. Bang! That was it. For the initial couple of months the program worked the way we had hoped. Our young man and all the kids loved it; you could say they were flourishing. Their behavior improved as did their school work.
And our guy, well the biggest problem was getting him to leave. He’d rather stay there, then go home. I wish I could end this story here, but then it would not be an honest ending. After a couple of months we were told we had forgotten to get permission papers signed by a parent or guardian of each child. So, we did, except for one. When told she needed to give consent for her son to continue training, our boy’s mother asked; “What’s in it for me?”
She wanted to be paid, the same way she was paid by the government for each child she had, and the same way she charged each child’s father if and when they wanted to see their kid. After all those years of being treated like a worthless sparring partner, the kid was finally a contender. He had value. Now it was a matter of how much.
Her price for the fathers to visit was one thousand. I wish I could say I was a hero and saved the day. Even bought the day. But I can’t, because I didn’t. The cost was too high. Not in dollars, but in the potential damage to our program.
Once the word got out in the areas where we served, that we were willing to pay ransom money we would be done. Yes, most of the parents we were helping with these initiatives were tremendously appreciative of what was done. But while their kids may have already been through ten rounds of life’s punches, they themselves had gone fifteen. And now there was a bell that might end it. And I wasn’t about to ring it.
Our foundation does have many stories with great endings. This isn’t one of them. Shortly after our kid stopped coming to the gym he was put out of his third school. I want to tell you that we tracked this raging calf down and got him to the title or to a safe place, but we didn’t.
When we last checked on him, what we were told was that he was in the ‘system’. His life was not forged in the recent flames of civil unrest, and anger that has caused many of our cities to burn; his began in a cradle of molten hate. It is our job as self proclaiming decent and honest people, to find the cause of the hatred that took George Floyd’s life, and in turn created the anger and another region of distrust, that is threatening to consume us all.
And even as I began writing this and before I could finish, there has been another killing by police in Atlanta.
The spark that started this blaze was a policeman’s knee, and we must ensure that nobody can ever again ignite such a crematorium of humanity. We must also recognize that there are many arsonists out there. Each summer in some of California’s dry areas there are wild fires, caused by lack of rain.
Many of our inner cities need a down pour of tolerance, empathy and education. Many of our children are thirsting for care, love and mentoring, they deserve and need. Yes, we must now sift through the ashes left by racism, and be sure there are no smoldering timbers underneath. At the same time we have to recognize the anger that exists in our country, and that continues to grow and be bred in our communities.
The story I just told is real and it is not limited to one child. I have seen hundreds, and know there are thousands of these poor lost and needy souls, who in their own angry and violent ways are crying out the way our children might act out for attention, and the need for someone in their life. Someone to just hold them, to tell them it’s not their fault. Tell them, they are good. Tell them they matter. Tell them the world needs them, and doesn’t hate them.
It is incumbent on us as a society to step in and provide the programs needed to save these children before they are in the ‘system’.
Yes, there are too many cases of racism, one would be too many, and we must and will fix this problem. But it would be wrong to not also correct this other one that has been around as long as the injustices now plaguing our country.
Not all flames burn buildings, there is a fire that comes from denying a child their basic needs for existence. Not milk or formula, as much as these are essential. When those nutrients are missing it is the body that suffers. And when it’s fed again the body will repair itself, and replenish.
But what of the baby’s soul. It cannot cry out for a bottle, as the body can. That cry cannot be heard until the child is older. It is lost for all those years, like an echo that bounces underground in hollow caverns, looking for a place to escape, to be heard. But instead it is trapped in its own inner cave.
When it is finally released the sound is no longer that of a baby. It has been deformed and mutated. It is a scream from a Freddy Krueger movie. It no longer seeks the warm milk from a mother; the search now is for vengeance. For what life has done to it.
I would hope that all of us do not want to see any more burning of cities, or this new version of snuff films, watching a man in blue kill a man who is black. We must have reform, we must educate and we must care.
Martin Luther King said he had a dream. In writing this I am asking, imploring, even begging us all to wake up.
And while we all continue to strive towards Dr. King’s dream, let’s end this nightmare that too many of our children live in. In the mantra of our great armed service members, “No man shall be left behind.”
And no child.