Childhood Wisdom in the Other America

CHICAGO. — Chicago. -- The day Dantrell Davis died, Karen McCune wrote: "I thouht my life will better than what it turned to be." That summing-up of a life was made a month ago, by a 9-year-old.

Today Karen is a 47-pound miracle of resilience. She is more than a match -- so far -- for the pounding that cities give childhood in this era of urban regression.


The shooting of Dantrell might have elicited a "so what?" shrug of this city's broad shoulders. After all, Chicago averages BBTC shooting every 34 minutes and a murder every eight hours and the more than 13,000 shootings so far this year have killed 17 children under 14. Dantrell was the third pupil at Jenner Elementary School shot dead this year. One of his schoolmates said: "I hope that next time it won't be somebody that I know." He assumes there will be a next time, a fourth time.

Dantrell was killed by a sniper firing from a nearby high rise as Dantrell and his mother began the 40-yard walk to Jenner from their high rise, through the killing zone of the Cabrini-Green housing project. Today, beneath the lead-gray sky of a Chicago November, the hard wind off the lake is gusting razor-like rain horizontally and Karen is chatting in a classroom overlooking a growing puddle on the spot where Dantrell fell.


Cabrini-Green is 70 acres of appalling public policy less than a mile from Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile. About 7,000 people live in the 31 high rises and 60 other buildings in this public housing project. More than half the residents are under age 20. Nine percent of the residents have paying jobs.

Karen, her hair neatly braided, her white blouse and blue jumper (the voluntary school uniform that most pupils wear) immaculate, her eyes bright and her smile dazzling, patiently tells a columnist that life's not so bad if you stay indoors. "My mommy won't allow me to go outside. I stay up in the house and read books."

She usually stays away from windows. "I be scared because my bed is by the window." But the apartment where she and some siblings live with her mother is on the seventh floor, safe from most gunfire. However, "When the Bulls won [the NBA championship] a car ran into the store [across the street from her apartment] and they were shooting up and my mommy had to duck down."

Jenner School shows its 90 years but is a wonderfully clean haven for children from a neighborhood run by armed children. For now there is a truce between the gangs, a result of a heavy police presence since Dantrell's death. The truce is a respite from the recurring need to move children into inner hallways on whichever side of the school shooting has erupted.

Karen, who even in repose has the happy can't-stop-wiggling-my-shiny-black-leather- shoes fidgets of the normal 9-year-old, nevertheless practices the prudence of the street-wise urban child: "I don't wear any Starter [a brand name] jackets because they're bad for us." Six days after Dantrell was killed, a 15-year-old from another school was killed evidently because he was slow to give robbers his Miami Hurricanes jacket.

Twenty years ago Jenner had 2,500 students. Today it has 630. Some of them have symptoms -- short attention spans, difficulty sustaining relationships, a tendency to think only in stark opposites -- often associated with survivors of a battle area. Small wonder. Shortly after Dantrell's death, Karen shared with a local newspaper reporter the sort of memory that marks childhood in this other America:

"They couldn't find my friend's mother. They looked and looked but they couldn't find her. Finally one day they found her body stuck in the sewer. It was all mushy and it stinked real bad. I'm glad Danny wasn't like that."

Her prescription for neighborhood improvement is common sense and contrary to public policy: "Take the gangbangers [gang members] out and take away all the guns." With an imperious sweep of a spindly arm in the direction of the high rises, she decrees: "Mow down those buildings. Don't need to be high-rise. Five floors enough."


Social scientists debate the concept of a "culture of poverty," the intergenerational transmission of passivity and fatalism. There is such a culture but it has not claimed Karen. Her small face wreathed in a huge smile of serene certainty, she announces that she's going to college: "I'm not going to have no boyfriend or no husband or child when I'm 15 or 14 or 13. I'm going to wait until I get real, real big, until I'm" -- she plucks a number from her imagination -- "27."

One of her best friends is a boy who wants to be a lawyer: "He uses big words, like 'interject.' " Karen says she is going to be a teacher. She already is.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.