“I’m Ty,” he said as he launched himself from the top of the steps, a tiny human missile heading straight at me, standing on the floor below. It wasn’t the last time I would be startled by Ty’s combination of complete recklessness and complete trust. He was six. He had come, with his shy and far more timid twin brother, Troy, and about 12 others, to an after-school program I had started in an inner-city public housing project in Boston. The year was 1975, and Boston was under a federal court order to desegregate its public school system through a citywide busing program that was met by often-violent resistance in many of the city’s still solidly ethnic neighborhoods.
Ty and Troy lived with their mother in one of those dreary brick-and-concrete housing projects that had been built with good intentions but ended up cut off from the communities around them, insular and menacing to outsiders. I always believed it was lucky for me as well as Ty that I caught him that first afternoon.
He was a great kid, but it was hard to feel optimistic about the future he faced in a place of violence and drugs and all the other pathologies we had been taught to associate with life in an urban ghetto: teenage pregnancies and single-parent families, truancy, vandalism, unemployment, crime.
In one way only did Ty’s neighborhood defy the stereotype: it was entirely white. And not just white, but still predominantly Irish and Catholic, bulwarks I had thought against the disintegration afflicting black families on the other side of the city – families whose children Ty’s neighbors hurled epithets at as the buses rolled through their streets, accompanied by phalanxes of motorcycle cops, while police sharpshooters stood sentinel on the high-school roof.
Clearly, the person who had the most to learn in my after-school program was me.