The dog days of summer have been busy ones here at the Spiral Staircase. I'll be working for NBC for the Olympics and will be offline until it's over.
A week ago we got terrible news at the gym. One of our kids had been shot to death on a stoop in Brownsville, victim of a street beef that had nothing to do with him. At twenty years old, Tray had his whole life ahead of him. It's been hard to shake this off and keep going, and I can't imagine what Tray's family are going through.
He was one of the first kids I got to know at the gym, because he was applying for a scholarship and needed help on his application essay. Most of these kids think that when you write essays you should sound phony, which makes me mad at their teachers. It takes a while to convince them to tell entertaining stories in their own words.
Maria brought me into the tiny office where Tray was sitting before the computer. He wore a crimson shirt and wooden rosary. He glowed with youth and strength and innate good vibes.
I hid the first draft of his essay, because I didn't want to use any of it. Instead we looked through Muhammed Ali quotes online as I tried to get Tray talking about his life. He opened up when we got to the subject of his fights, describing his advance through the opening rounds of the Golden Gloves and his loss after getting the flu before his third match. He'd also gotten some kind of chronic injury from basketball but trained through it.
"You seem like someone who has overcome a lot of obstacles," I said. "That could be the theme of your essay. Have there been any things at home, like in your family, that have been hard?"
He was silent for a moment. Then he said, "When I was five, my dad got killed."
His father died the same way Tray would: four bullets in the chest. At first Tray didn't want to write about it, because he thought it sounded like complaining and he was an optimistic person who didn't like to dwell on suffering, but I convinced him. It is sometimes my job to be less pure than these kids. Tray won a thousand dollars, but he won't get the chance to spend it.