Tyrik Greene: If You Can't Reach Us, You Can't Teach Us
In many ways, Tyrik Greene is a typical 17-year-old high school senior preparing for a promising future. He loves forensic science and struggles with math. Like many young men his age, he wears Nike sneakers, lifts weights, goofs with friends, is active in clubs and volunteers in the community. Football is a passion; he led his team, Yonkers Force, in rushing yardage this fall and won a 2018 All Conference title. And, he has a girlfriend.
Spend a little time with Tyrik, listen to his story, and you’ll quickly realize that his life, his accomplishments are, in fact, extraordinary. After a turbulent toddlerhood partially spent in foster care, caring grandparents took him in and raised him with love. The surroundings where he lived were rough, and by the time Tyrik was in high school, several friends had been victims or perpetrators of violence, resulting in jail sentences or worse.
Until 10th grade, Tyrik was “teeter-tottering on being a gang member and being on the streets,” said Gorton High School Principal William Shaggura. “He was rougher around the edges.”
Tyrik agreed. “I didn’t know how to handle problems or my anger. I would fight, curse out teachers. I always had to have the last word,” he said. “I started to change through MBK.”
With the encouragement of the administrators at Gorton High School, Tyrik joined the school’s My Brother’s Keeper the chapter in 2016, soon after it was established. Empowerment assemblies and inspiring visitors expanded his world view and connection with others. “We would share stories and reflect,” Tyrik said. The next year, when his beloved grandmother passed, Gorton’s MBK brothers, advisors and caring teachers supported him. Still, he said, depression sidelined him for a while.
This fall, Tyrik found his voice and a new sense of purpose through MBK. As Public Safety Officer Robert Bannister prepared a presentation about the social pressure young men face to hide behind false “masks” of masculinity, Tyrik’s face brightened. “You do know I could present this, right?” Tyrik said.
Seeing Tyrik’s enthusiasm, Mr. Bannister and Assistant Principals Ryan James and Sony Grandoit decided to take him up on the offer. Two days later, Tyrik facilitated a Taking Off the Mask session with 70 young men, guiding them through exercises that revealed how much “fronting” they did, acting tough and aloof at all costs. On the front of a paper mask, students wrote words describing their public face – words like “friendly” and “confident” were common. On the back, they wrote what they hid from the world including depressed, worried about my mom’s health and scared. The young men soon realized they shared similar challenges and began opening up to one another.
“MBK is a brotherhood, another family. You can talk about what’s on your mind,” said Tyrik, who prides himself on enrolling classmates in Gorton’s chapter. “Through MBK, I am my better self so I want to get as many kids on the right path as possible.”
Tyrik soon led a session with Gorton’s teachers, sharing the masks students had created. Some were surprised and moved by the words on the back of the masks. “Everyone in the room had goosebumps,” Mr. Bannister said.
Teachers gained insights into students who act out in class. “A lot of kids my age, believe it or not, their moms and their dads are crack heads or junkies or their father is incarcerated for life,” he said. “We don’t have it easy.”
Tyrik suggested that teachers might consider pulling students aside to check on their well-being before getting angry.
“If you can’t reach us, you can’t teach us. These kids are troubled for a reason. I called it Post-Traumatic Neighborhood Syndrome,” offered Tyrik. “I really felt like it hit the teachers.”
“Tyrik is looking to help everyone. Every day he makes a difference in our approach as educators and school building leaders by increasing our understanding of what our students may be experiencing outside of the school,” said Mr. Shaggura. “Through his openness and commitment to pay it forward for our young people at Gorton, he is that bridge.”
In October, with classmate Jason Ford and other MBK brothers, Tyrik shared a presentation that included The Mask with visitors from the Obama Foundation, who were in Yonkers for its MBK Community Grant Competition. The guests were moved to tears. Yonkers won the grant. Since then, Tyrik and Gorton MBK have shared the material with MBK students at the Enrico Fermi School and Yonkers Montessori Academy, with plans to continue expanding its important message.
Noting Tyrik’s persuasive communication skills and “street cred” among students, Gorton administrators ask him to speak with two groups of 10th graders who were planning to fight each other after school. Tyrik asked the eight students what the disagreement was about. “Nobody would answer,” he said. So he pulled his chair up to the table and looked them all in the eye. “I said, ‘Listen to me. The vibe that you’re giving me - there are only a few paths I see you going down, dead or in jail. You need to wake up.’” He challenged them to consider that, with no jobs and no children, “all you have to worry about is coming to school and building a foundation for your life.”
The eight students eventually admitted they were taking cues from older neighbors in their communities. Tyrik warned them not to follow others into fights or buy into drug dealers’ bravado. “These kids don’t want to live that life. Some of them got their girlfriends pregnant, now they’re looking out for their brothers and sisters, and a new kid. On the streets, money comes in fast.”
“It’s not wrong to distance yourself from someone who is doing wrong,” encouraged Tyrik. At the end of that meeting, the students all shook hands and apologized to each other and have remained on friendly terms.
“By helping others, Tyrik has dramatically helped himself. In terms of attendance and grades, “he has done a total 180,” said Mr. Shaggura. “Today he epitomizes what MBK is all about and what every one of our young men has the opportunity to become.”