What Will Happen to Harold?
HAROLD MAYFIELD JR. is sitting quietly in his seat, his attention focused squarely on his geography lesson until an older student comes to his classroom door. “Yo, tight shirt!” hollers Harold. “Tight shirt!”
The kid is, indeed, wearing a tight shirt. But he ignores the smaller boy. “Miss Terry wants some DVDs,” he says to Harold’s teacher, Miss Biondo.
Biondo retrieves a big stack of videos from a tall metal filing cabinet. “Harold,” she says over her shoulder, “what do we do when someone comes to the door?”
“We sit quietly,” says Harold, “and we don’t say anything.”
“That’s right,” says Biondo.
Harold’s shoulders sag, and with his right index finger he pokes himself in the temple, hard, four times, as if trying to force the lesson into his brain. Harold is tough on himself when he makes mistakes. His shoulders slump, and if he’s standing, his next steps are lurching ones, as if his own behavior has struck him like a blow to the stomach.
It’s January 2008, and Harold is enrolled at Hope Partnership, a private middle school near Temple University. He’s 10 years old, about five feet tall and a lean 105 pounds. He has high cheekbones that suggest he’ll always have good looks, and a broadly enthusiastic smile that seems to radiate color and love. He likes Pajama Day at school. He’s proficient at reading. He excels at math. He stutters a little when he’s nervous. He lives in a desolate section of North Philadelphia with his mother, his father, two brothers and a sister. The house is small. The floorboards bow underfoot, the walls need fresh paint, and huge swaths of plastic sheeting insulate the front windows. But the interior is immaculate, evidence of lives held together by a mother’s daily, grinding effort.
On Fridays, Harold’s family celebrates movie night: Dad gets takeout, the family piles together in front of the television, and they watch DVDs until their eyes grow tired. Harold’s father has been in and out of jail for much of the boy’s life, mostly for a series of petty crimes. But there’s a sense of hope now, because he’s home. He’s active with the kids, and Harold Jr. is happy. “He plays with me,” he says.
On the basis of these facts, Harold Mayfield Jr. may be better off than a lot of kids in Philadelphia. But despite his smarts and the presence of two parents, he faces enough challenges to be considered “at risk.” Over the past few decades, juvenile justice professionals have outlined a whole series of factors that render a child more likely to wind up either a perpetrator of crime or a victim. At 10, Harold is too young to process much of what has happened in his life. But there are times, like here in class, when he seems to carry the full weight of the future many academics would predict for him. About 15 minutes after he’s reprimanded for hollering at Tight Shirt, in fact, Biondo asks each child to pick a word that describes his or her mood. Everyone chimes in with assessments like “happy” and “peaceful.” Except for Harold, who says, “Ashamed.”