From his hospital bed in West Side Chicago in the US, the eighth-grader was already plotting how to kill the person who had put him there. It had been a month since Latee Smith’s 15th birthday, and a week since a bullet blew a hole through his right hip, tearing into muscle and bone and leaving him bleeding on a sidewalk.
“Let this boy make it,” he remembered a woman praying over him amid the crowd that gathered after he and three friends, ages 11 to 16, were shot on the night of March 21, 2016.
Latee woke up from surgery with a metal rod in his femur. His first steps were so painful that he’d closed his eyes and bent his head back. He had barely eaten, losing pound after pound until the scale read 104. Then came the texts from fellow gang members who swore they knew who’d caused it all.
Now, in his bed, Latee could think of little else except “revenge, revenge, revenge”. He would borrow a pistol, steal a car and go at night. He would find the rival gang member who’d shot him, poke the gun out of the window and, for the first time in his life, pull a trigger.
Then, on the day he was being released, Dajuan Smith, the older brother of another teen who had been wounded, stopped by Latee’s room to say hello.
“I’m fixing to get back at them boys,” Latee told him.
Don’t, pleaded Smith, a 24-year-old high school basketball coach who had recently lost a young man he mentored to gunfire.
“Your life,” Smith said, “is worth more than you think it is.”
Latee couldn’t recall anyone ever telling him that before.
A dangerous environment
The third youngest of his father’s 15 children, he had grown up in the middle of chaos, bouncing from home to home in his earliest years and sometimes going weeks without seeing his mother as she struggled with drugs and alcohol.
About age eight, he wound up with his dad, a Vietnam war veteran and construction worker who moved the family to a home they could afford in the West Side’s Austin neighbourhood, one of the city’s most dangerous.
Latee had been bloodied in fights, sold drugs on treacherous street corners and seen a friend die on the street.
And none of it was remarkable. Perhaps nowhere in the United States does violence ruin more childhoods than in Chicago. Since 2000, it has taken the lives of more than 1,000 kids younger than 18, according to police. That figure doesn’t count thousands more who were shot but didn’t die, including Latee, one of at least 300 kids wounded by gunfire in 2016 alone.
He knew no world but that one, with its complex gang relationship, culture of revenge shootings, and relentless threat of prison time that had left many children like him convinced they have no future, no way to escape.
But on that final day in the hospital, Latee wondered if he was wrong. What if he could somehow defy that fate?
“I was going to end up in jail or end up dead,” Latee decided, “so I had to do something.”
And what he had to do was change everything: Who he spoke and listened to. Where he went and when. What he did before, during and after school and on the weekends. How he approached almost every decision of every day.
A new routine
More than a year had passed since Latee’s own shooting. He’d spent the morning at an orientation for the city’s summer jobs programme, when news reached him that one of his old friends had been shot.
Latee was doing whatever he could think of to avoid that life. He stayed off his old street corners and learned to say no when his boys asked him to hang out.
Latee often argued with his girlfriend, but he grew to depend on her. She insisted that he come see her more often because she figured at her house, watching a movie on the couch, he was safe. She logged onto his Facebook page and erased his old street name, and he blocked the accounts of enemy gang members who wanted to add him as a friend only so they could make threats.
He improved his grades, got counselling and started a paid apprenticeship that taught him and other wounded Chicago teens how to blow glass. He spent almost every afternoon at the youth centre, alone if he had to, watching rap videos on YouTube.
“I’m lucky I got shot,” he said. “The bullet made me more mature. Smarter.”
But the first week of summer had arrived, and Latee knew that when classes ended in Chicago, shootings often spiked in the long, hot, empty days that followed. June was already on its way to becoming the city’s deadliest month for children in more than 15 years, with one being killed, on average, every other day.
“Happens all the time. Nonstop,” said Martin Anguiano, a program manager for Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development, better known as BUILD Chicago. The organization runs the youth center and has worked with the city’s most at-risk kids since the late 1960s.
Your money or your life
Latee had joined a gang at age 10, shoplifting doughnuts from gas stations and fighting with rival gangs, usually with fists but sometimes with wooden planks. Then he began to steal bikes and join joyrides in the back of stolen cars.
By the time he reached middle school, Latee began to notice his friends showing off rolls of cash. They wore nice sneakers and bought new clothes for the first day of school. He wanted those things, too, so one morning, Latee nervously stepped out onto a street corner.
“Dubs,” he shouted, advertising US$20 packets of drugs just up the road from his home.
His gang mainly worked in two spots, and he called his the “good block” because most dealers there were children, which made drive-by shootings less likely. He could make as much as US$150 in four hours, more money than he’d ever had in his life, enough to buy Nike Air Force 1s and food for his family.
Latee sold on and off, he said, until one day when he saw the body of another dealer who’d just been gunned down. The scene gave him nightmares, and he decided the money wasn’t worth it. Even then, though, he didn’t abandon the streets.
Latee blamed himself for all of it – his run-ins with police, his shooting, his inability to play football again because of the rod in his leg. Now he was trying his best to do right, but in west Chicago, that often didn’t matter.
Staying safe and on the programme
The high school hall’s brown walls were covered in bright yellow motivational posters.
“Believe that there are no limitations, no barriers to your success.”
“The best way to change it is to do it, right?”
“Whatever your goal, you can get there if you’re willing to work.”
Latee passed them on his way to a training session for his city sponsored summer job and slumped into a chair on the empty second row.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel had sold the jobs programme, One Summer Chicago, as a “doorway of opportunity” that would lead “our children to realise their full potential and a brighter future tomorrow”, but Latee didn’t think of it that way. For him, the job was essential to his day-to-day survival strategy. It would keep him busy and, hopefully, safe, for 20 hours a week. Plus, he needed the money.
Like many of his friends, he had sold drugs for no other reason than that, and he’d made close to US$40 an hour doing it. Through the city, Latee would earn just US$8.25 an hour to go along with the US$10.50 an hour at the glass-blowing programme and the US$100 he got every few weeks for working at a youth centre.
“It’s worth it,” Latee said. He just wanted to be able to take his girlfriend on dates for chocolate pancakes or buy himself a fresh set of US$4 fake diamond earrings.
Still just a kid
For Latee’s 16th birthday, his girlfriend bought him a blue watch and a vanilla-frosted cake coated with sprinkles. He got nothing else but had saved enough cash to pay for an afternoon at a video game arcade.
Latee’s street smarts and self-control often disguised that he was, in fact, still a kid. A kid who had never flown in an aeroplane. Who sometimes punctuated the “i” in his last name with a circle rather than a dot, and couldn’t even grow a proper moustache. Who shared childish, profane posts on Facebook and photos of himself flicking off the camera. Who, with his girlfriend, would invent silly characters and pretend they were in comedy shows together.
Latee hoped for more – to go to college and maybe become an engineer because he’d heard they needed to be good with their hands. But looking too far ahead was dangerous.
“I’ve gotta take my time,” he would say. “I can’t be rushed.”
It’s hard to believe everything the programme counsellors say when Latee didn’t know a single person from his circle who’d made it out of Chicago and succeeded. But sitting there in the auditorium, he did know that a 17-year-old friend of his had been shot in the knee down the street the night before.
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“You guys have to be here because you believe that you deserve to be here,” said N. LaQuis Harkins, an speaker on the stage explaining the importance of looking professional and making a good first impression at a job interview. She had also grown up in Chicago and attended Howard University
She asked the 100 or so attendees to repeat after her, and most of them did.
“I am,” she said, then paused, “me.”
“I am ready.”
“I am smart.”
“I am deserving.”
Staring ahead from the second row, Latee didn’t say a word as Harkins told them all to stand and try the exercise again.
Worthy. Ready. Here. Deserving.
Latee remained silent.
A mentor who understands
The teenagers on West Gladys Avenue were going to get arrested or shot. Latee knew it, and so did his mentor, Clifton “Booney” McFowler, who had just driven by and seen them on the drug corner.
“Just about all them little dudes at one point I done grabbed them from somewhere, man, to try to stop them,” said McFowler, standing in the Austin youth centre’s parking lot. “You know how I used to see you, ‘Man, what you doing, man? Why you out here, man?’ ”
Latee nodded as he idly spins a football.
McFowler, who wore his long, greying dreadlocks beneath a reversed black baseball cap, was a legend in the neighbourhood. He had spent more than two decades in prison, serving his last sentence for murder. Since his release in 2009, he had devoted his life to persuading Austin’s next generation to take a different path.
“But they don’t listen,” the 56-year-old continues. “They think they too far in where they can’t get out. But it ain’t like that, man. You can always get out.”
“They are probably too scared to get out,” Latee suggests.
McFowler also spotted one of Latee’s childhood friends, and at the mention of his name, the teen pauses.
“Darrion about the only one I really love, though, man. He understands,” Latee says. “The rest of them, they want me to stick around, but Darrion – like, I’ll tell Darrion, ‘I’m gone,’ and he’ll be like, ‘All right, shortie. Keep it real.’ The rest of them be like, ‘No, stick around, man.’ ”
To keeping fighting the urge to go back to his previous life is what McFowler preaches to his mentees. Latee is one of his success stories.
“I promise,” McFowler said, “I don’t worry about you no more.”
“You always used be in my ear, though.”
“But I ain’t got to,” McFowler said, his voice steeped in certainty. “Because you got it, man.”
A trial by fire makes you stronger
Latee peered across the room into the blazing orange eye of a furnace. Amid the heat in a converted firehouse, that now served as an art studio, he waited for his turn to slip the tip of a steel pipe into the flames.
It had been a year since he’d started at the glass-blowing programme, Project Fire, and nine boys, including Latee, were working together for the summer. He hadn’t met them all before but knew what they had in common. They had all survived gang-related shootings.
There was the lanky guy in the white tank top, his shoulder scarred from a bullet that blew through it when he was 13.
There was the thickset former football star who, at 16, had nearly bled to death after being shot while waiting for a school bus.
There was the stocky teen who had been hit twice, first in the back and again, a month ago, in the thigh.
Combined, they knew more than 120 people who had been killed in Chicago, but the boys weren’t talking about any of that now. The work in the studio demanded focus and, at least for a few hours, gave them an excuse to forget the sense of doom that had come to define their lives and their city.
Latee walked over with a pipe, wrapped on one end with molten material, as the roaring heat from a 1,260 degree furnace washed over him. He used a spoon-shaped tool to mould it, then sculpted the knob with wet newspaper. Reheating and repeating the process, his cup had begun to take shape and gotten stronger through its time in the fire.
“Somebody’s gonna buy it,” Latee predicted from behind his clear protective lenses.
He needed to warm the material once more before finishing, so he headed back to the furnace. Then, just as Latee returned with the metal pipe to a work bench, his cup snapped off the end. It floor to the floor, crashing against a metal sheet.
Heads turned. His teacher stopped. Latee gasped.
“Damn,” he said.
From across the room rushed instructor Pearl Dick, who co-founded the program. She leaned down with a thick pair of protective mitts.
Dick turned the object in her hands, inspecting each side.
Not a single chip, she told Latee. His cup had survived.
Relieved, he poured himself a drink from a water cooler and took a seat by the open front door, away from the fire. His work for the day was done. Latee had made it through the first week of a Chicago summer. There were nine more left.