Teach kids how to hope, or share their despair


EDWARD Querzoli's death made me realize -- and not for the first time -- that my male mentors are disappearing. (My female mentors seem to be living a lot longer.) One by one, I've lost those older men who leaned on the outfield fences of my life to tell me how to play just about any ball that came my way. Though their influence endures, I sense from their deaths an emptiness in the psychic spaces they long inhabited.

Querzoli was my first newspaper editor, and his teachings stayed with me long past the time I worked for him. He was always there, in some way, always looking over his apprentice's shoulder.

He died in February. His funeral was in the Roman Catholic church by the cemetery where my father is buried. On the occasion of Querzoli's passing, I took inventory of the old male mentors, the ones who were generous with their time, who taught the value of hard work and the importance of family. They had fine eyes for honorable things. They advocated right over wrong, common sense over foolishness, generosity over greed, friends over ambitions. They shared their wisdom. They challenged me. I was lucky to have known them.

These thoughts occurred again the other day as I sat next to Baltimore police officers in a small room in Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. A boy, whose first 15 years of life could not have been more different from mine, sat at the trial table as men and women in the room decided what to do with him.

The boy's father was not part of his life. His mother has been in jail for many years. The boy lives with his grandmother. Many of the male figures in his life are involved in drug dealing -- one of them was killed recently -- and that's how the boy wound up in Juvenile Court, charged with possession and distribution of cocaine.

The prosecutor, Steve Mitchell, said the case was typical in many ways. "For one thing, his grandmother was there," Mitchell said. "We see that a lot. His grandmother is there because she doesn't want to see the child die."

The grandmother was unable to get the boy away from Pennsylvania Avenue, where he was dealing. This happens a lot, especially in the many single-parent (or -grandparent) households throughout the city. Little boys become bigger boys and slip under the influence of young men who hire them as lookouts on drug corners.

But Baltimore is not one vast, dysfunctional inner-city family in denial about this problem. There is great frustration over the number of boys getting sucked into the violent drug culture. "The overwhelming majority of parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and neighbors of these kids care what's going on and want help for them," Mitchell said. "They want to keep their kids out of it -- they really do."

Mitchell, who grew up on the south side of Chicago, has been an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore for nine years. He started in the juvenile division, transferred to other prosecution units, then shocked his supervisor by asking to return to Juvenile Court.

"I have the personal opinion that this unit is the most important one in the state's attorney's office," he said. "I could do jury trials. You know, that's what prosecutors think we all went to law school for. I can prosecute a 25-year-old for armed robbery, but he's an adult and by then he's unlikely to change."

With kids, there's still hope.

That's why Mitchell offered to return to the juvenile division.

There are days when he wishes he had time to mentor more of the boys he sees at the trial table. He and friends have been mentoring young men for several years, treating them to experiences they otherwise would never have, emphasizing the importance of education, telling stories that might help them make smart decisions.

The smartest -- and, he says, hardest -- decision Mitchell ever made was when he was 15. He not only refused to join a gang that roamed his Chicago neighborhood, but resisted the urgings of friends to retaliate against a gang member who had shot and wounded him with a .22-caliber handgun. "If I had retaliated," Mitchell said, "I would probably not be here today."

A year later, he made another smart decision.

"I had a buddy who cut my hair in Chicago. And one day he rode up on me on the street and asked did I want to ride with him on an armed robbery. He just wanted someone to come along with him, and I could have half the money. And I said no. ... And do you know I didn't see him for eight years? He went away for that long, and I was mad because me and him were cool, and he was the only one who cut my hair right. But I tell this story to kids. I can't tell you why I didn't get in that car. I could say it was a complex decision-making process, but it wasn't. I just made the right decision."

Mitchell wasn't the only one involved in that decision. Others had helped, long before the moment arrived.

Mitchell had "the greatest parents," and a certain congressman from Chicago (later its first black mayor) took an interest in him when Mitchell was in high school. Harold Washington gave Mitchell an interview for a term paper. Later, Mitchell worked in Washington's political campaigns and stayed in touch with him. "He saw potential in me, and he said he expected me to succeed," Mitchell said. "He was tough. He wouldn't accept failure."

Washington died while in office several years ago, but his influence endures.

These days, Steve Mitchell is active in Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity in Baltimore. That group, with a coalition of sports and media celebrities, attorneys and other professionals, have started a mentoring program called the Comeback Kids. It's part of the Stop the Violence 2000 campaign that began Thursday night with a rally at Mondawmin Mall.

Maybe more men will enlist in the project, or one like it.

We all mourn the loss of our old and honorable mentors. But sit in Juvenile Court for an hour and you'll feel much deeper grief for all the boys who never had them at all.

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