Wilson Whitlock came to Streetfront half way through his grade 9 year. He was one angry 15 year old. He was attending a west side school but things were definitely moving in the wrong direction. Like so many other youth, he was spiraling into an abyss of self-harming behaviours. He would routinely smash holes in the walls of his bedroom with his fists or even his head. His relationship with his parents was melting at an alarming pace. Any risk he could he find, he’d take and then step it up a notch or three. School became a tedious and pointless exercise – the teacher’s thought he was a lost cause and Wilson worked hard to prove that maybe they were right all along. Things changed in February of 2017. Wilson walked into Streetfront and found a school that wasn’t afraid of a challenge.
One of the strongest memories I have of Wilson’s first few days at Streetfront was during our daily PE classes. Streetfront always starts the day with a PE class. 9 am in Gym C is where you’ll find us. Most kids roll into the gym, still dozey from the night before. Not Wilson, he bounded into the gym every morning with a purpose. He’d go straight to the bin of basketballs, grab one and then proceed to either kick, punch or throw the basketball as hard as he possibly could, whether it was towards the hoop, the wall or the ceiling. This was no light toss; this was violent, almost malevolent. The anger was so palpable. There was no interplay with anybody else in the gym. He seemingly had a personal score to settle and this was how he was going to settle it.
Wilson struggled initially with the physical demands of our program. We play a basketball game called bump at the start of every class. It’s a fun, interactive way to start each class but it’s competitive. Wilson’s basketball skills were pretty low and routinely he was quickly eliminated from the game. Same thing with volleyball – he couldn’t resist the impulse to punch the ball rather than safely play that ball with the appropriate technique. All of this was visible, it was public. He knew where he was physically, compared to the other kids. As a new kid in a program, you have to work through this and gain the skills necessary to compete with your peers. If you give in to the embarrassment you never pass that “newbie” stage - you never get to a position of confidence and pride. Wilson was really finding it hard to find the humility needed to improve.
Streetfront is well known for its running program. We’ve created the largest cohort of high school marathoners in the world. If anyone thought playing bump in gym class was intimidating, try lacing up your sneakers and training with kids who can knock off a 10 km in 45 minutes and have run multiple marathons. The first few weeks were brutal. Wilson would put out a valiant effort, only to be heaving for breath and walking 2 km into it. He was frustrated and thought he could never accomplish what the other kids could do so easily. Then one training run in February, a volunteer named Pierre, went out on the run and ended up running alongside Wilson. Pierre’s as nice a guy as there is and the two of them just fell into a conversation as is wont to happen when one is trying to motivate (distract) a new runner. Wilson really took to Pierre’s approach and before he knew it, they had passed the 5 km mark. Wilson dropped his tough guy veneer and allowed Pierre to help him get through this run, so much so that Pierre literally pushed him along some of the more challenging parts of our 10 km route. As he climbed the stairs to the portable, I met him and could see he had something to say. “I did it, Trevor! I ran the whole 10 km!” I knew then, we had him.
From that point on, there was a discernible shift in how Wilson operated at Streetfront. Though he still had a definable edge to him, he was far more willing to talk the staff, to the other kids to allow us a chance to get to know the kid under that edifice of anger. Once he had completed his first 10 km, he was hooked. He was not going to let himself be defeated by the distance. It was going to be brutal but he committed to run a 10 km every single time we went out. He also committed to running the Vancouver Half Marathon in early May. This was a really big step – publicly stating that you are going to run Vancouver means a lot in our school. It means you’ve stepped up and are now willing to put your name on the line. Very few, if any, have ever not fulfilled their intention. Unless you are ready to hurt and fight, you keep your mouth shut. Wilson stood up and told everyone he was going to do this. On May 6th, he completed his first half marathon. A brighter future was unfolding.
About the same time he had committed himself to long distance running, he also got himself a job at the Noodle Box in Kitsilano. He loved being in the kitchen – the pace, the activity and the stress were things that got him excited. He quickly became their most committed employee, taking on anybody’s shifts that came available. He ingratiated himself to his employers and they recognized the dedication and commitment this kid was bringing to a minimum wage job. Soon his duties were expanding and his role and function in the restaurant were becoming critical to the success of the business. He would always come and talk about how he wanted to make the kitchen more efficient, how he wanted to reduce waste and bring in a comprehensive recycling and composting program to the location. All the lessons we had taught him about “being the architect of your future”, “not putting off to tomorrow what you could do today”, “going out and doing something today that most kids can’t or won’t do” were being put in play. I would sit back and think, “if this kid cares this much about a seemingly crummy afterschool job, what else can we get this kid hooked on?”
Now the fun began.
Wilson returned after the summer break super committed. He showed up with almost none of the simmering anger that was ever-present the year before. He was more precocious and more excited about the prospects that awaited him. Within 5 days of returning from summer holidays, he signed up for a half marathon at Garry Point in Richmond. He constantly sought out conversations with others and became a generous ally for many marginalized kids. At the end of each class, I’d find Wilson by my chair, just wanting to talk. He had that hunger that a long-in-the-tooth teacher can sense a mile away. I started talking to him about books, music, movies, philosophy, art – all the things that he knew interested me. I decided then to give something a chance. I told him about a book that influenced me in high school – Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries. As a kid growing up in Saskatoon, this book hit me over the head with its vivid depiction of a boy fighting his desire to be an artist and his hedonistic/destructive tendencies. I told him he should read it. The next day, he showed up with the book. Within a few days the book was finished and the exploration of words and ideas had begun. He wrote me an essay about the book and it was brilliant – half autobiographical and half philosophical treatise.
He seemed to like the gritty New York stuff, so I then told him to buy Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem. This book details a young boy’s witness to the birth of hip-hop in Brooklyn. I knew he’d eat it up. After he crushed that book, I decided to create his own curriculum. I called it My Own Private Education – with liberties to Gus Van Sant. I decided to teach him the books, movies, philosophy that I felt were important for a young man trying to find meaning in the world. He’d watch No Country for Old Men and Clockwork Orange. He’d read Kant and Camus. He’d study Basquiat, Rothko and Warhol. He’d dissect the libertarian tendencies of existentialist writers. He’d gobble up Kafka and his absurdity. He’d laugh at Tobias Wolf. He’d be taught by Public Enemy and Run DMC. He’d be mystified by Buddhism. It became one of the greatest years in my teaching career. I’d receive almost weekly expositions on everything beautiful and challenging in this world. His thoughts and ideas were crystalizing into this beautiful pastiche of wonder and awe.
I’d share the work with his mom and dad and they were in disbelief. The boy, who tried to destroy himself in front of them, was now writing me essays on Kant’s Categorical Imperative. He became our leader on the marathon team – finishing off his first full marathon in late November in the driving rain. He stopped doing drugs and alcohol. His peer group changed – now he was surrounding himself with other positive kids. He joined the Sarah McLachlan Music Outreach Program and then signed up for private lessons on top of that. He became a youth advocate for a drug and alcohol prevention program sponsored by the Vancouver School Board called SACY and would inform parents of how the world of drugs and alcohol operate from a student’s perspective. He reclaimed his love for making art. But without a doubt, the single biggest thing he did, was repair his relationship with his beautiful parents. He was once again their son. He loved their company and they in turn loved being in his presence. The three of them would show up for a report card meeting and tears would flow and disbelief would surround us. Straight A’s. Comments like, “the top student in the class”; “shows a maturity and sophistication of thought that I have rarely seen”; “is the embodiment of what we hope a Streetfront student is”, were everywhere on the page.
He ran another marathon in May but this time he got his mom to run the half marathon with the other Streetfront kids. By this time, the Noodle Box had instituted his Noodle Box Manifesto as I called it and had totally overhauled their recycling and composting programs. He became a vegan in order to fulfill his ethical and moral wishes. He won the prestigious Neil Falkner Award at the Britannia awards night (a 14 day Outward Bound kayaking trip). He won awards at the annual Alternative Schools Art Fair. He was selected to attend an 8-day wilderness trip to Hesquiaht Harbour, two hours north of Tofino. He decided to use his pay cheques to pay for a trip, by himself, to New York. To walk the streets of Jim Carroll, Biggie, Nas and Malcolm X. He went to Broadway musicals. He followed the footsteps of his musical idols. He went to MOMA. He went to Harlem. He went where he wanted. He went because he worked hard enough to earn the money and the trust to do it alone.
Wilson will run 2 marathons and 3 or 4 half marathons with us next year, even though he will now be attending a different school for grade 11. He will be selected to be a member of our Street2Peak Team who will travel to New Zealand in March of 2019. He will return to Noodle Box and give them more effort and more commitment than any high school employee should give. He will look to help rather than take. He will overcome rather than submit. He will read books that others have told him to read. He will find beauty and recognize pain.
He will make it.
He’ll be happy.
Isn’t that how it should turn out?
Please meet Wilson Whitlock. A Streetfront OG