Something You Can Do That Matches What You’re Saying

I wonder what Jalijah is up to now.

I met her a little more than a year ago at Vicente D’Oro barbershop in Dorchester, and from what I saw, her 18-year-old life appeared to be changing fast, pulsing with uncertainty and promise.

Is she still at Salem State? How was her summer? Did she dance? Does she still work at the movie theatre and get her hairstyle “lined out” at the barbershop on Saturday night?

Most importantly, what’s the state of her dreams?

When we spoke, Jalijah’s face was calm, her eyes a soft smile under shapely brows. She searched thoughtfully for the right words and wondered with gentle amusement when she couldn’t find them.

As she patiently answered my many questions, a snapshot of her days emerged – living with her mother, stepfather and a few of her five siblings during weekends, staying on the college campus on weekdays.

Her oldest brother was 20 and engaged; her youngest was six. “It’s pretty loud, especially with the little ones,” she said.

Her parents are from Haiti and Honduras; her stepfather is Puerto Rican. Jalihah speaks Spanish, but “I feel like I sound weird.” She replied to the barber’s Spanish with English.

She’s lived in Dorchester since she was born. “Here, it’s very community oriented, but then again, there’s that violence sometimes.” Near her house, a seven-year-old was shot in the leg. “It’s a little tough, but we’re good at staying positive.”

Hearing her reflect on her life makes me think of what every young person should be allowed to do – dream a lot about what’s to come in that dissatisfied, not-yet way of the less-than-fully independent.

What frustrated her most right then? Not getting opportunities. Or maybe wanting to squeeze still more from those she’d had.

The previous summer, Jalijah joined a City of Boston art therapy dance program for teens. In part, she said, their mission was to “advocate for how the performing arts can help community change.”

At one point, they gave a presentation and performance to lawmakers at the State House, asking them to override a veto of an arts budget proposal.

The funding stayed – a victory for the young activists.

From the program, Jalijah learned much about teamwork and determination, as the group of young dancers went from conflicted to cohesive. It was the first time her family saw her perform onstage.

“We didn’t realize how much heart and power we put into it.”

After the season ended, she continued to experience the pull of dance, joining a step team in college, which “really kept me grounded.” She’s seen the impact arts programs like this one have on “at-risk youth,” a phrase that, when she utters it, tells me she knows how to reach powerful people who decide what to do with taxpayers’ money.

“It makes me want to work with teens who have different stories and help them come out of their shell.”

She was one of those kids during her sophomore year.

“I always had problems with confidence. I didn’t like my look.”

It’s hard to imagine this girl – polished as a stone, letting her words sink in and her brown eyes look directly into mine – as having confidence problems. But I’m seeing the result of an artistic activity undertaken with others that taught her to take hold of herself, to administer just the right mix of admonishment and encouragement to move into something new.

Jalihah’s search for what came next reminded me that we are all in a process from which we should never stop engaging – the push to define who we are in the world, to feel truly comfortable with that definition, easily at home with ourselves.

I could relate to her yearning for more, to the sense of being held back by uncertainty, or sometimes just by the daily bustle of survival and duty that crowds out what one perceives as the pursuit of excellence.

In her musings, I hear the uneasy question I know well – how much to pursue what I want, and when to let go, knowing it is truly out of my hands? This question is so prevalent, it has become its own beloved prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to     change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Jalijah is figuring out what more needs to be done. “I want to network and meet people in the arts,” she said. “I don’t push myself to do it.”

I say to her – and to us all – keep pushing.

“I’m just always thinking about what’s something you can do that matches what you’re saying.”


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