It takes Biondo several minutes to get Harold to agree that the class deserves to end the day with a movie. She puts on The NeverEnding Story, right where they left off the previous week. Atreyu, the boy on the screen, whoops and hollers, riding a flying dragon. Harold lays his head down on his desk. After a couple of minutes, his face slackens, and he relaxes into the story. It’s the rest of us who should feel unsettled. Because if we know with statistical certainty that Harold Mayfield Jr. is at risk, shouldn’t we be able to save him?
WHAT WE TALK about when we talk about Philadelphia’s homicide rate is invariably the kind of bogeymen represented by, say, the Broaster brothers, a notorious pair of gun-happy thugs from North Philadelphia, or Daniel Giddings, who allegedly stood over police officer Patrick McDonald last year and shot him to death in an alley. We think of these people as evil incarnate, and we don’t think, much at all, about the average Philadelphia murder victim: a black male, under 30 years old. Many of these victims are either involved in the Philadelphia drug trade, or simply standing too close to the action — unable, by virtue of a poor education and low economic status, to move to safer neighborhoods.
What we consider, even less, is that all of these men were once 10-year-olds, probably acting out in various ways, unchecked, until it was too late. Wendy McClanahan, vice president of research at Public/Private Ventures, a national nonprofit that creates programs for low-income communities, delineates a long list of risk factors. What becomes immediately clear is that the circumstances that lead a kid to a violent adulthood are discoverable as much through common sense as through science. Consider Harold: The sins of the father are, statistically speaking, often visited upon the son, so his dad’s arrests loom large. His family’s low-income status is another challenge. So is living in a high-crime neighborhood. Harold hears gunfire outside his house on a weekly basis, and corner boys dominate the area, wearing their white shirts like uniforms and dealing from hot spots all around. Harold’s own behavior has raised concerns, too. He was asked to leave his previous school because of fights with his classmates. He has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, another risk factor. He was on medication for a while, but his mother didn’t like the way he used the condition as an excuse. Like everyone else, she also saw television reports declaring that kids are overmedicated. So she discontinued her son’s treatment. “I wanted him to see that he can handle it on his own,” she says.