Prayin' hard for better dayz

While I battled cancer, I also had to deal with my teenage son's embrace of hip-hop culture.

Published November 28, 2005 12:26PM (EST)

I have to tell you: I hate rap. I hate the bitches and the asses and the 'ho's. I hate the in-yo'-faceness, the pumped-up testosterone, the butted-out chests, the finger-jabbing, the ice, the six-packs, the balloon pants, the rings like brass knuckles. The pervasive boxer shorts, the Jockey bands where belts used to be. In yo' face is not an attempt to connect. It means shut up, stay away. Move bitch. Get out the way, as the song says.

I know the socioeconomic justifications and the political roots. I like some of the bravado and the clever wordplay. There are songs that have opened my eyes and forced me to think. But most of it pretends that glamorizing guns and gangstas is keeping it real; it is misogyny decked out like a Courvoisier ad. I'm into havin' sex, I ain't into makin' love, 50 Cent sings. No intimacy or mystery or love, God forbid any allusion to or regard for what comes next. Just poses and postures selling a crude idea of what it means to be a man.

The hills are alive with the sound of rap-blasting in suburbs, in Paris clubs, out of the cars that cruise up our street from the projects down the hill. Ghetto is a state of mind. To kids of every color -- black, Asian, Latin, or white, like my son Joe -- it's an adjective, the coolest, the best. Now dat's ghetto, you say if you're ghetto. It came out of the ghetto, but now it's not anywhere, it's in kids' heads. You can live in the ghetto and not be ghetto. On the other hand, my son Joe doesn't live there, but he's ghetto.

For the past couple of years, since the summer Joe turned ghetto, I have felt like I live in a rap video -- rappers crowding the camera frame above me, looking down like they just kicked my butt and are ready to do it again. As my husband, David, and I have watched Joe take on the gangsta swagger and pout, we have wandered around like the iguana in Eddie Murphy's "Dr. Dolittle," muttering, "So young, so angry. Damn that rap music!" What did we do that our kid has embraced such a dark view of the world? Where did all we raised him with go? Where did who he was go? The star athlete, the student leader, the boy who wrote screenplays and directed the neighborhood kids in films, the kid who composed music on the piano so beautiful that other mothers cried . . . He thuggin? Oh he a thug. On da real. Looking back, there was no way that summer could have been normal. It began not with a party at the beach or a banana split. It began with me taking off my wig.

The autumn before, I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Two things stand out from the misty light that bleached most of those first few days from my memory. One is that I had not been given a death sentence; there was a lot I could do to fight it. The other is Joey on the soccer field the day after we told him about my diagnosis. He said he was going to make a goal for me, and he did. In the slow-motion replay in my head, I can see him right after, his summer blond hair gone brown, turning to find me in the stands, pointing to me from the field. Just do it, his burning eyes said. He was eleven years old.

I began chemotherapy after Thanksgiving and started brushing out handfuls of my shoulder-length hair just before Christmas. As part of the instructions on helping kids cope with that side effect of chemo, they suggest making it fun, having your kids draw funny faces on your bald head. Joey and his younger brother, Nat, wanted no part of that. The coping mechanism for them was not to see my smooth, bare head ever, if possible. I searched out a wig that approximated my tight, dark, Italian curls, but the standard dealers had only shiny flips and big loopy ringlets. Then I found a woman who specialized in wigs for women of color. Through her, I bought a hand-me-down from a wealthy black woman that was a near-perfect match for my hair.

It wasn't that the cancer was a secret. Everyone knew. But the boys could cope with my occasional nausea and fevers as long as we kept the rhythms of our routine -- as long as I could pick them up at school and look normal. This worked pretty well until my eyelashes and eyebrows started thinning out too. Without those familiar signposts on my face, my hair seemed to get bigger. I looked like a country singer. So I switched sometimes to a cheap, short pageboy wig that I could wear with a baseball cap pulled down low. That had its problems too. Arriving at school in our family car with straight hair was one thing, but the day I told Nat I'd be coming with a friend in her car, it was too much. "You will have curly hair, though, won't you?" he asked with a worried look.

By summer I had a feathery mantle of baby hair, just enough to let me abandon my wig. "It looks good, Mom," Joe said cheerfully. "You look like Cal Ripken." Actually, I wish I had looked as good as Cal Ripken. With a pale man-in-the-moon face still puffy from chemo, I scared even myself sometimes when I caught a glimpse of me in a mirror. Taking off my fake hair was supposed to be a relief. Instead, it seemed to lay open all our anxieties and fears that had somehow stayed tucked neatly away under my wig. Through the long winter and spring, I had just wanted life to go back to normal. But there was no normal, or at least normal wasn't going to be what it used to be. We went through the usual motions of summer -- the drive from swimming lessons to art camps to piano lessons to the grocery store -- and sometimes we had an extra stop: radiation. I was required to go for fifteen minutes a day and therefore, some days, so were my sons. They would sit in the waiting room with women in hospital pajamas doting over them -- two brave little men, their arms folded across their chests. Only God knows what they were thinking; I chose not to ask.

Sometimes we stopped at Mission Dolores on the way home. I was a long-lapsed Catholic; my religion by then was incense, candles, and the "Ave Maria" sung in Latin. David and I and the children had gone to church recreationally, mostly for the spectacle of the Christmas pageant, where children dressed as angels and shepherds tripped on their robes down the usually austere aisle -- accompanied by live goats, donkeys, and bunnies -- and everyone prayed that the Baby Jesus stand-in would make it to the altar without slipping from little Mary's arms. One Christmas, in a fabulous faux pas, a pregnant goat went into untimely labor in the vestibule, her screams punctuating the telling of the Christmas story, something that perhaps only a mother could appreciate: a truly wrenching evocation of birth in a manger.

But now I was back at church, slipping in after my treatments, guilty as only a Catholic can be, daring to ask for whatever mercy could be spared, trying this time to deal directly with God and ignore the angry voices of my childhood, which demanded, Why do you deserve this? What have you done for God lately? One day, as I lit a candle at a time when the thought of leaving my children was particularly tormenting, warmth spread through my fingertips to my toes, a sense of calm I had never felt, telling me that everything would be all right. On another visit, as I sat silent in the dark, cavernous church, alone except for a caretaker fussing with the kneelers, the sun suddenly broke through a stained-glass window, drenching only me in a circle of gold, green, and purple light. My mind rationalized that Catholic architects had designed the church for just that effect and that tomorrow it would happen again to whoever was sitting in my spot, but my heart hoped it was a sign from God.

I didn't talk to my sons about this. I just took them a few times to Mission Dolores to light a veladora, and I hoped that in the cool stone and serene faces of the saints, in the red light that is always lit to signify God's presence, they would breathe in some of the security that Catholicism gave me as a child. Nat, who was eight at the time, seems to have an innate feel for both the simplicity and profundity of things. (He keeps scented candles by his bed to smell at night and once took an empty M&M bag to preschool so the other kids could share its faint odor of chocolate, its nostalgic whiff of sweetness.) As I had expected, the mystery of the church did its magic on him: He told me that the wooden eyes of Saint Joseph had looked at him, and another time he saw the statue move.

As summer went on, the boys cut their hair short, shorter than mine. I checked mine daily to see if it had grown. We made jokes about the cancer, but mostly we were quieter that summer. Strangely, what carried us through, what helped us cope, was rap. It drifted into our lives through the car radio and became the background rhythm to the strange dance that we were stumbling through. That relentless beat had always seemed so annoying when it boomed from the open windows of cars. Suddenly, it was something reliable, dependable, comforting almost.

And so were the words. The struggle to survive, the defiance, the loss of friends and family, the anger at being dealt a crooked hand, even the fragility of here and now sealed us in a trance. This was not a Beach Boys summer. We weren't havin' fun all summer long. We were shell-shocked street soldiers, trying to get to the next stop. The "angel thug" Tupac Shakur -- whose premonition of his own violent death six years before had infused his songs with a poignant intensity -- spoke to us from the grave: Baby, don't cry. You gotta keep your head up. Even when the road is hard, never give up.

The rap poet Nas sang to his mother, who had died of breast cancer two years before:

They playing our song the lifebeat my hand on your waist
I grab your other hand and try not to step on your toes
Spin you around with my eyes closed
Dreaming I could have
One more dance with you mama
. . . I'd give my life up ... to have
One more dance with you mama

We never changed the dial when that came on. We listened in silence. It spoke to us more than any cancer self-help manual could.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

David and I are liberals in a cosmopolitan city that considers itself one of the outposts of progressivism. We were committed to putting our children in a diverse public elementary school and lucky enough to get them into one where the parents were very involved and the racial mix mirrored that of the nation. This is no easy feat in San Francisco because much of the black middle class has immigrated to Oakland, driven out largely by rising housing costs.

When Joe's adolescence came on with a bang during the fall when my treatments ended, we were blindsided: a basketball jersey, a headband, a pair of Air Force Ones, and before we could catch our breath, he was talking the gangsta talk. The first time I heard it, I thought it was some other kid outside our door. I done got locked out, an excessively manly voice said. Then I heard it again and again, and like a scary movie, the voice was inside the house. De popo's comin. You mess wit dat breezy? Neva dat. She jockin me. I don chill wit dem.

For a while, friends and family hung up the phone when they heard Joe's super-cool new voice and talk on our answering machine, thinking they had gotten the wrong number. When Joe did pick up the phone, they were bemused by the throaty voice that greeted them. "Yo' mama's on the phone," he said one day as he handed me the receiver. My mama? Wasn't she still his grandma? His man voice was moving him away from us and from his childhood.

We had always congratulated ourselves that Joe had built a rainbow coalition of friends at school. But overnight he stopped chillin' with his white buddies. His sudden need, and to a lesser extent Nat's, to be black (or more correctly, to be "ghetto," the popular teen definition of being "authentically" black) took us by surprise. Of course, Joe denied it and laughed at other white kids who tried to act "black."

"But you're trying to be black," I said one day in the car. "I'm just trying to be a cool white guy."

Nat threw up his hands. "I admit it. I'm a wigga."

It's true, Nat was a "wannabe nigga." Although he still fell asleep clutching a furry little bunny, he had also taken to wearing a do-rag and oversize white T-shirt to bed, which made him look more like an angel than a thug. At his birthday party, he was the token white kid. Actually, Nat had been conferred the status of nigga by one of his friends, a term that still burned my ears though I knew it was considered a form of endearment among some African Americans. "And Natty," his friend had added, "I mean it in the nicest possible way."

Nat's foray into ghetto was mild and fanciful, but Joe's, like everything Joe, was with great heart and a vengeance. "Our school is so white," he complained one day. "There are only three black kids in my class." I started to count off all the African American and biracial kids, but it was all he could do to be patient with me. "Oh her -- she's so white," he huffed. "Him -- you call him black?" By his definition, there were really only three "authentic" blacks, and he was one of them.

To a city boy like Joe, urban street-corner society was simply more interesting. The sidewalks were livelier, the styles hipper, the banter wittier, the music better, and the extended families of cousins and aunties and siblings more fun. White kids at school snickered at his transformation. "Didn't that used to be Joey Talbot?" one mother giggled to a teacher. Although black kids are routinely expected to fit into white culture, the idea of a white kid becoming black seemed laughable to everyone but Joe's African American friends.

We knew Joe's need to define himself separately from us was a natural part of adolescence. "I'm trying to figure out who I am," he reflected one day. "I think this is who I am." But all attempts to convince him that he could not erase his white middle-class roots were to no avail.

When he was thirteen, we took him to see The Godfather, to expose him to an American classic and revive his interest in his Italian American roots -- but that backfired. Soon after, describing how he averted fights between neighborhood kids, he explained to me, "I'm kind of like the Godfather. People come to me with their problems, and I help them work them out." I looked at him -- the thin arms that were lifting weights to get buff, the ethnic nose he was trying to grow into -- and I immediately regretted that choice of films.

I realized then, with some awe, that he was still young enough to believe he could reinvent himself as anyone he wanted to be. I knew that, someday soon, his ghetto persona would probably not be accepted by either blacks or whites. But I marveled that, for now, by his definition, skin color was superfluous.

Maybe, after all we had been through, Joe's need to reinvent himself as someone else was simply stronger than most adolescents'. Maybe he needed to go to a world where his parents and his old friends couldn't go. Maybe my cancer had accelerated his hardening himself to be a man. But it was something else too. Once, a writer told me that after her divorce her son dropped out of the school band to become a loner skateboarder. When she asked him why, he said, "Mom, kids whose parents are divorced don't play in the school band." I think that, for Joe, the world of shiny soccer trophies and smiling two-parent families busying themselves for school bake sales just didn't seem important anymore. Inside, he needed to connect with people whose lives seemed as hard and scary as his must have suddenly felt. And in his inner-city friends, he found that connection.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

In bookstores, the titles on helping kids cope with cancer in the family are shelved with those on raising children who are biracial or disabled. But none of the books tells you what to do when your cancer crashes up against your son's becoming ghetto. I came out of a year of treatments with a childlike appreciation for life's humble things. The pale clouds of winter, a glittery spider web could bring tears to my eyes. But I had also lost my son's last year of boyhood, and I wasn't ready. I'd get hurt by his sulking street self. While his eyes darted around to make sure he was not being seen with us at movies and on other family outings, I still wanted every second of our time together to count. I had no right to ask that of him, I knew. Give him time to find himself, I thought. But I also wondered sometimes how much time I had to give.

David and I were concerned with Joe's transformation for other, more rational reasons. His lapses into bad grammar were to us like a jarring car alarm on a deserted street at night. All his interests -- school, piano, film, soccer -- seemed to shrivel against the pounding rhythms coming from behind his door. Sometimes I'd hear him working out a beautiful refrain on the keyboard, but then there would be the familiar grunts and shouts, and I knew it was just background for the main event: rap.

After all our family talks about the civil rights movement and African American history, we were actually appalled. Didn't Joe know that most people were trying to get out of the ghetto, not into it? Joe and his pals weren't thugs, but they all wanted to look like it. They studied the short lives and violent deaths of rap stars as if they were Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X. We worried about what serious risks could lay ahead if Joe pursued the gangsta persona into the more dangerous years of high school.

But Joe's new identity challenged our own assumptions and awareness as well. With Joe's new friends in our lives, neighborhoods that we usually drove through only on our way somewhere else now became our destinations. I remember walking through double locked gates into a labyrinth of concrete halls to drop off one friend at a unit that had only a TV and a PlayStation -- no chairs, no kitchen table, no beds. Dropping off another child meant driving through acres of public housing staggering down to the shipyards in San Francisco's Hunter's Point. Years ago I often went into these projects when I worked with teenagers in juvenile court, and later wrote about kids who were struggling to get out of them. But when had they built so many more of them? Why didn't I know how the projects had multiplied? They might have been communities of Amish or Hasidic Jews for all my life intersected with them now.

The insidious face of inner-city poverty seemed to raise the stakes on everything -- even the simplest get-together. Should we let Joe sleep overnight at the home of his new best friend, who lived in public housing? Would Joe be a target in a tough inner-city neighborhood, or just an unlucky victim of a stray bullet? Should I be honest about my fears with his friend's mother or make excuses? A longtime African American friend of ours told us we were being too cautious, but when a man was shot down after a high-speed chase with the police on the street where Joe's friend lived, it settled the question.

What I hadn't expected was to find myself worrying about the safety of Joe's friends in our neighborhood. We live in what middle-income San Franciscans consider one of the last affordable areas, a topsy-turvy mix of mostly aging bohemians, Latins, gays, lesbians, and white starter-house families. It is separated from one of the poorest, most gang-dominated neighborhoods in the city by one traffic-clogged boulevard that leads to the freeway. Like a Pied Piper, Precita Park sits on the dividing line, drawing together kids from both sides to play. Parents sit on the benches, watching their kids mingle but rarely mingling with one another. At dusk they retreat to their own side of the invisible line. At night we are connected by sirens: the people on our side of the line often awakened by wailing from the streets on the other side.

Our neighborhood is by no means sheltered or privileged. But when Joe started bringing new friends from the other side up to the house or even hanging outside with his black friends from school, I noticed the neighbors tense up. People on our block paused a while at their doorways before going inside, watching them. Someone always seemed to notice if one of the boys hopped the back fence to get a stray ball in a neighbor's yard. When the boys rang the doorbell of a female classmate a few blocks away, her neighbor called the police. The girl's white mother had a black boyfriend whom the neighbors were used to seeing around, but the sight of those boys climbing the stairs to her door on a Saturday afternoon alarmed them.

I doubt they even noticed Joe -- they just saw a gang of kids who shouldn't be there. They saw the scariest people in America -- black teenage boys. I realized that everywhere these kids went -- up the street, downtown -- they were being watched. A few summers ago, as budding filmmakers, Joe and his white friends had rung doorbells in the neighborhood and run off, catching people's reactions in a video series they called "Pranking and the Human Response," a kind of precursor to Ashton Kutcher's Punk'd. I knew that Joe and his new gang could never get away with something like that.

As I got to know the mothers of Joe's new friends, I saw that they had their own apprehensions about sending their kids into our neighborhood, new turf that might hold unfamiliar dangers on the street. And they worried about their kids hanging out with some white boy whose idea of fun might be their sons' trouble. "I was so relieved to find out that Joey was a nice boy," one mother, Charmaine,* admitted to me one day. "You know, these white kids are bringing drugs and sex into the schools."

Slowly, awkwardly (much more awkwardly than our sons, who by now called themselves "brothers"), we moved from polite to friendly, from talking through a rolled-down car window to coming in to chat. My new friends were mothers raising their kids alone, with little or no child support. Unlike me and my other friends -- mostly atheists and agnostics -- they spent long hours in church and believed strongly in the power of prayer. Two kids' fathers were doing hard time. One boy's father refused to pay child support to his mother, but said that if his son needed something, "he knows he can call me." Another boy's stepfather had just died of cancer, and his birth father lived across the country. "Sometimes I wonder, why is God doing this to me?" said his mom, a woman who was raising three children alone. "Then I realize, God is doing this to show me I have the strength to handle it."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Fall and winter of eighth grade in San Francisco are dominated by the hysteria of the high school application process. The stakes are high. Good public high schools are few, so many middle-income parents also apply to private schools they cannot afford, praying for scholarships or, like us, resigning themselves to taking out loans to pay tuitions of up to $25,000 a year. In fact, many private school scholarships go to families with incomes of $100,000 or more.

The crumbling, leaky halls of even San Francisco's elite public high school, Lowell, can't compare with the calm, safe havens the private schools offer. We visited pricey schools that supplied each student with a brand-new laptop, plush libraries that rivaled those of my college, campus "communities" that promised small classes and study support. Though the schools talked a lot about diversity and had elaborate, ultra-sensitive ethnic pride clubs, they seemed to have just a sprinkling of light-skinned black students in the mix. One school had enough clout to have drawn an elderly Rosa Parks to campus for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday to sing "We Shall Overcome" with the overwhelmingly white student body.

For thirteen-year-old kids, the application process is needlessly brutal -- essays, interviews, tests, shadow visits, open houses, all while having to keep up their grades. For parents, it is obsessive. "This is my job," is the familiar refrain from stay-at-home mothers. One working mother I knew took a leave from her job to keep up with the rigid schedules and paperwork required.

I went through the process like a stand-in in a life that was no longer mine. Up until a year or two before, Joe would have had a good shot at one of the top schools. But now his grade-point average was wobbly and his extracurricular activities weak. He had mustered the energy to make an impressive film in which he asks a wide variety of people to define what it is that makes them who they are. But he closes it with a tribute to Tupac -- a big point of contention in our house that can be explained only by the insanity that had overtaken us. My husband -- newly enlightened after seeing the film Tupac: Resurrection -- argued that it was Joe's artistic right to do so; I said that most admissions people know Tupac as just a thug who got himself killed, and it wasn't worth the risk. But we both warned Joe to check his ghetto walk and talk at the door when he visited the schools. We made him wear Polo shirts and khaki slacks with belts. We threatened him about his grades. We even tried to force him back into volunteer activities. But Joe had his own volunteer project going.

We had put in an application at a new school whose mission was exciting: It promised to groom students for the twenty-first century with a curriculum that emphasized science, technology, ethics, and spirituality. Students would learn how to negotiate a "potentially troubling world" by studying world cultures and learning how to become "peacemakers," according to its literature. Acknowledging the central realities of diversity and community, the school would "mirror the rich mosaic of the San Francisco Bay Area, reaching across its wide spectrum of race, culture, and economic circumstances" to draw its student body. Joe had decided that this sounded like a great opportunity for his friend Devon.

Devon was a kid who could benefit desperately from the support that only a private school could provide -- and he could contribute much to other students' understanding of the troubled world. His father was out of prison and pretty much out of the picture; his mother was struggling to support her children on a lot less than the cost of one year's tuition. Beneath his serious street face, Devon had an open sweetness and unabashed curiosity about the world. Though guarded and awkward when I first met him, he soon revealed a deep heart and optimism about the future. Although he struggled in school, he had not lost his motivation to learn. But he was walking a tightrope, and his academic experience and support in the next few years seemed vitally important.

The school's co-director of admissions, a charismatic young black man, appeared to be scouring the Bay Area seeking out underprivileged students like Devon. He had met Devon and liked him, and encouraged him and his mother to apply. They were thrilled. So Joe quietly took it upon himself to tutor Devon and help him with his application. Devon chose to write his application essay on his relationship to God. Joe edited it. The night before school tests, I could hear him on the phone with Devon: "Okay, now no cheating. Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?" Late one evening, I heard him reassuring Devon, "You're going to get in." I kept in touch with the admissions codirector and Devon's mom, to keep the process rolling. And then I held my breath for all of us. I was proud of Joe's empathy and compassion, but I knew that his personal version of "community service" did not have the institutional stamp of validation that counted on school risumis.

While we middle-income parents of eighth-graders sweated through winter with our eyes on the high school prize, a tide of violence quietly began sweeping through the city. Thirteen African American teenage boys were killed during the year.

A young man whose sisters had tried to save him from the street violence that had claimed his mother was shot. Three boys on their way to high school were killed in their car. A fifteen-year-old was gunned down leaving a YMCA dance. Another boy was mistaken for someone else and killed; his cousin was shot a week later, on the day of the boy's funeral. "Kids are dying right and left here," Devon's mother exclaimed to me one day.

The violence blew in across the city like afternoon fog off the ocean, settling deep into pockets of town -- Lakeview, the Excelsior, Sunnydale, Hunter's Point -- and leaving others clear and untouched. Some of the murders didn't even make it into the San Francisco Chronicle. None of the white, middle-class parents I knew talked about them. I wondered if they even knew about them. Would we have known had it not been for Joe's impassioned updates on the subject? If one of the shootings had happened at a middle-class public school, San Francisco parents would have mobilized around it immediately as a school safety issue. But these happened in the shadowy places on the other side of those invisible lines. These are the things that we know without knowing.

My new friend Charmaine, however, took each one to heart. Arriving at our house looking particularly weary one day to pick up her son, she told me how hopeless she had started to feel. She went to memorial services for boys she would never know, wrote notes to their parents. She treated them as if she knew them. She couldn't help but think about how hard someone had worked to raise them right, and how easily that care could be destroyed in the flick of a trigger finger.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

In the end, Joe's new identity hurt him with the elite high schools and didn't help Devon either. Joe didn't get into any of the top private schools. Though he was accepted at the new school with the exciting mission, which was under-enrolled, Devon was not. The cost of a full scholarship was just too high, we heard; there were other kids with better grades, and his application had come in late. So it wasn't that they didn't think they could work with him. At least not officially. It was that it didn't seem worth it. Unlike Joe, Devon would not be free to reinvent himself. "It's probably better that he didn't get in," said the mother of a white student who was admitted to a few private schools, thinking she was providing some consolation. "He'd be on the bottom of his class there, but at a public school he won't."

The new school could be our chance to get Joe out of the ghetto, however. For months, it had been our salvation, beaming like the neon one-way sign on a fundamentalist church, pointing the way back to our side of the invisible line. But a curious thing happened the day we went to the school orientation. Out of about four dozen students who had been accepted into the first class, only two were black. The smiling African American students pictured in so many photos in the brochure were a lie. Some of the bright new freshman faces even belonged to kids from wealthy suburbs with excellent public high schools. Like that of all the private schools we had seen, this school's vision seemed to reflect what white liberal parents would like to be true rather than the real truth, a fantasy that makes it easier for us to live with our choices.

One of the two black students there was a longtime friend of Joe's, a middle-class boy whose parents are both African, and who is being raised by his black African-born aunt and white American uncle. I knew that top colleges accept many more students from immigrant African or biracial families than they do lower-income children whose families have been in America for generations. But how could there be any hope for the future if high schools did that too? "They're looking for kids like him," Devon's mom told Joe, referring to the boy with African parents. "They're not looking for kids like my son."

"This school says they're preparing kids for the future," David whispered to me during the orientation, rolling his eyes. "This isn't what the future looks like -- it's not even the present." In the end, we were just too uncomfortable there. We withdrew Joe's application. I realized then that all that time while we were thinking that Joe was moving off on his own, he had been moving us with him.

Fortunately, Joe had also been accepted to a fairly diverse public arts high school, where admission is based more on creative talent than on grades. But Devon literally slipped through the cracks of the public school system. While his mother pestered the school district and while the better public schools filled up, his application simply floated around for months like a plastic bag on the city's windblown streets. Finally, he was assigned to the lowest performing high school in the city -- one of the lowest in the state -- a troubled school that is also notorious for gang violence. After last year's shootings took two students' lives there, the school's principal was quoted as saying he expected that other students would not make it through summer to return to school in the fall. I asked Joe how Devon felt about his placement. "He's scared," Joe said.

On the afternoon of eighth-grade graduation, their last day of school together, I drove Joe and his friends back to our house for a sleepover. These could not be the goofy kids I had driven around all year, all braces and giant shoes, smelling of greasy onion rings mingled with boy sweat. With their slicked hair and suits, their cologne and corsages, they looked positively suave. I savored the sight of them in the rearview mirror. And for a moment that I knew wouldn't last, I imagined them like this ten years from now, all young professionals getting together downtown after work.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Summer is here again, an end and a beginning. Joe's bedroom now doubles as a sound studio. In the room where his growth is still penciled on a doorframe, my teenager has created a web site to introduce the world to Bay Area rap. He brings kids up from the projects to record songs. He brings Devon over to make beats. He's still angry that Devon didn't get into that school, but he thinks his friend has a good future in rap. According to Tupac, Joe says, just as television news kept the horrors of the Vietnam War in front of America's eyes, rap keeps the inequities of life in our ears.

Street life has warmed up with the weather. Teenagers cruise by at night and pause at the corner, their basses sounding the thumping throb of nowhere to go. Some people want us to go away, sings the hip-hop group Frontline. No, aint goin nowhere, we here to stay.

A stone's throw from that corner, a few summers before my diagnosis, an apparition appeared at the chapel of Ave O Maria Immacolata. The Virgin Mary, with cascading hair and flowing robes, showed herself to the faithful on the verdigris gable of the chapel's roof. She came only at night, enveloped in the scent of roses, and disappeared before the morning light. All summer long, carloads of the desperate and the curious quietly climbed the hill at night, where an altar of candles and flowers had been set up on the sidewalk. Though the parish priest warned that "intangible items" require a rigorous investigation before being recognized by the church, the faith of the parishioners was stronger than reason. It was said that in Mary's presence an "overwhelming spiritual sense" washed over their bodies like the holy waters of baptism.

The Virgin appeared two days before the murder of two teenage lovers who were shot while picnicking in Precita Park on a sunny day, kids who must have thought their lives stretched out ahead of them. The Virgin left at the end of summer, but other miracles followed in her wake. Most recently, it's been said that the hands of a teenage boy bled with a rose-scented oil, so much that the priest put it in a bowl and used it to bless those who attended the evening services.

It has been almost two years since my cancer treatments ended and nearly three years since my diagnosis. My hair is down to my shoulders, although the curl has never come back. Neither has the cancer, though. I'm in a new phase -- the "survivor" phase. With breast cancer, you are a survivor unless the cancer comes back to kill you. So I live sometimes in a surreal dream of uncertainty, but uncertainty about the future isn't solely my domain.

At night before bed, I rub my hands and body with rose oil. Then, sometimes, I lie awake worrying about the future of Joe and Devon and all the boys who now fill our house. They don't have a prayer, the old saying goes. But then, I think, they do have prayers; prayers are something they have plenty of. They are living on teenage life force and their mamas' hard work and prayers. They're praying too, prayin' hard for better dayz.

"Jesus Walks" is the name of Devon's favorite rap song this summer. God show me the way because the devil's tryin a break me down. The other night, when he was at our house, Devon wished me good night in a way my sons never would. "I'll pray for you, Camille," he said. I'll pray for you too, Devon, and for all the boys with chunky medallions and falling-down pants who come to our house to rap their hard, silly, hopeful songs.

I have to tell you, I still hate rap. But just when I'm ready to ban it from our house forever, I hear a phrase from that vulnerable place in the rapper's steely heart: the sweet nostalgia for his mother's love. It's a love that is, well, like my sons' love for me -- a tenderness and a sheltering that make me think of that day on the soccer field when Joe's fierce eyes told me he was with me in the fight for my life. As much as he's changing, that has stayed the same. "I love you, Mom," the super-cool voice croaks from his bedroom sometimes, just before he drops off to sleep. Then, quietly, waiting until he's at the edge of consciousness so he doesn't know, I brush his forehead with a kiss, a blessing, and savor that glow before the night exhales its darkness and the moment is gone.

*The names of some people in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

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Excerpted from "Because I Said So: 33 Mothers Write About Children, Sex, Men, Aging, Faith, Race & Themselves," edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses. Published by HarperCollins and coming out in paperback in January 2006.

"Dance," by Nasir Jones and Chucky Thompson, copyright 2002 Sony/ATV Songs LLC, Ninth Street Music, Inc. and Publisher(s) Unknown. All rights on behalf of Sony/ATV Songs LLC and Ninth Street Music, Inc. administered by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, 8 Music Square West, Nashville, Tenn. 37203. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

By Camille Peri

Camille Peri is the editor of Mothers Who Think.

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