I am strong because I can lift my own weight. I am smart not just because I get As. I am bold because I am not afraid to stick up for my rights.
Adults must guide children on violence
This Op Ed appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on July 8, 2005
By Zanae Cook
I recently read about an 11-year-old Brooklyn girl, Queen Washington, who was stabbed in the heart by her 9-year-old friend. It forced me to think about the horrible effects of violence. An argument over a stupid ball changed the lives of two girls. One is dead, and the other will live the rest of her life knowing she took a life.
As a kid, I felt safe at home and in my community. I knew that my family would protect me from harm. But now, as a teenager, news stories about kidnappings, rapes and murders really scare me, especially when I see someone my age being carried away in handcuffs. Sometimes, I feel like I can't escape violence. It's everywhere - in music, TV and video games. It makes me angry to see adults, who allow the world to be this way, act shocked when kids resort to violence. If you teach us that violence is power, how do you expect us to act?
I started to fight with people if I felt confronted or disrespected. But then I saw up close what violence is really about. I was playing with a friend at her house. We heard yelling downstairs and ran into the living room just in time to see her father punch her mother in the face. He then turned on us, hollering and telling us to go back upstairs.
All I could do was hug my friend. We never spoke about what happened, and in a matter of weeks, I saw a happy, friendly girl change into a stranger. She skipped school, started fights and smacked a teacher. No one knew that she was acting like her father, doing what she'd seen at home. My friend became such a troublemaker that she was transferred to another school. I haven't seen her in a while, and I hope she's OK.
After that, I knew I wanted to change. Through an after-school program at Girls Incorporated of Greater Philadelphia & Southern New Jersey, I learned about safety, respect and making good decisions. And just a few months ago, I was in a situation that tested everything I learned.
I was on a city bus with my basketball teammates traveling to a game when a group of girls started to harass the passengers. We ignored them, but one of the bullies chose me as a target. She demanded my earrings, yanked my ponytail extension and tossed it out the window, and poured water on me. The girls threatened to beat me up if I got off the bus. None of the adults helped me, and I felt trapped, humiliated and angry. I wanted to hurt those girls, but I knew that I would have more respect for myself if I stood my ground and didn't fight. I didn't strike back, even when they spat on me.
I cried that night and realized that in some way those girls were crying, too: crying for attention, crying for help, just like my friend with the abusive father. I knew I did the right thing, but I still felt powerless, angry, and hurt. What made me feel particularly bad was that all those adults just sat there and did nothing to help me.
A story like mine is not what makes headlines. We never hear about the girls who choose to walk away from violent situations. Sometimes it feels as if the whole world is like the adults on that bus, pretending that there's nothing wrong until someone gets hurt. And then there are lots of questions like "How could this have happened?" and headlines about girls becoming more violent.
Adults need to take responsibility and help kids cope with violence, fear and powerlessness. Help us feel proud of ourselves when we walk away from a fight and assert ourselves with words not weapons. All the "hows" in the world won't bring Queen Washington back or give the 9-year-old who killed her a new life.
Zanae Cook, 14, of South Philadelphia, attends Peirce Middle School.
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