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HOPE FLOWERS IN AN ARID CITYSCAPE

Maybe you've seen that commercial where this guy is working in the paint department of a hardware store. You're unimpressed until you realize that the "guy" is only Larry Bird, one of the greatest basketball players who ever lived. Except that in this reality, he's not an all-star forward with a killer jump shot. He's just some guy operating a paint mixer.

And in the end, when the hardware guy casually tosses a wad of paper into a trash can maybe 20 feet away, you're left with this sense of loss -- of potential denied and promise deferred.

I invoke the commercial by way of introducing you to a young man named Jermaine Barnes. I met him the other day through a story in the Miami Herald by my colleague, Fabiola Santiago.

Jermaine, it seems, was a walking cliche of urban dysfunction. Reared in poverty by a single mother. Trouble-prone, sullen and sometimes violent. Shipped off to a last-chance school for bad kids. Jermaine was so difficult that his new teachers were given a two-word warning: "He's hell."

And "hell" he might have remained, except that one day an art teacher gave him a picture of some wildflowers she had cut out from a magazine and asked him to paint it. It turned out that "hell" had talent, and he began painting flowers; lilies, orchids and irises are his favorites.

Teacher Janis Klein-Young began tutoring Jermaine outside of class. She even found exhibitors to show his art and buyers for it. Now the work of the artist Jermaine Barnes goes for $45 a pop, money he uses to supplement the $6 an hour his mother makes as a cook at Burger King.

Granted, it sounds like a movie of the week, and not a particularly good one at that. Let us not romanticize the story; Jermaine Barnes is still a work in progress, still in need of considerable development -- as an artist and as a person.

After all, he's 18 years old and only in the 10th grade. And he confesses that the temptation to return to the old ways is ever present. For all the opportunity he now enjoys, you sense that he could yet do the stupid, impulsive thing that destroys this fragile chance at better days. Yet, with all that said, I still think there's a lesson here if we only have ears to hear.

I'm struck by the fact that of all the things there are in this world to paint, this tough kid from a watch-your-back part of town chooses flowers. Graceful, delicate flowers. After all, as Klein-Young told Santiago, "This is a child who doesn't get to see many flowers in his real life."

I take it as a reminder that you never know who or what a child has in him or her to be. Yet how close did Jermaine Barnes come to never being an artist? Like Larry Bird in that commercial, he skirted -- still skirts -- the rim of potential denied and promise deferred. Destiny missed like the last bus of the night in a neighborhood where walking is not advised.

The troubling truth is, kids miss that bus all the time. Miss it because of poverty, ignorance, bad choices, lousy circumstances. Miss it because nobody was watching them with eyes that really cared.

Small wonder. If we're honest, we'll admit it: Kids scare us. Kids like Jermaine especially, but really, all kids. Too reckless, too unformed. Too naive, too unthinking. Too impulsive, too changeable.

We fear what they might do to our lives, fear what they might do to their own. Yet we forget that they fear, too. That all too often, arrogance, sullenness, even violence are the armor worn by frightened children struggling to discover who and what they are.

So we, if we are compassionate and wise, struggle with them, help them in their discovery. We seek to peel the armor away. It's an act of faith.

And like all such acts, once in a while it's rewarded. Once in a while, you find flowers growing inside.

Miami Herald

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