Queshawn Jenkins wrote out his wedding vows, then crumpled them up and handed the paper to his best man.
There was no need to memorize what he wanted to say.
The big Upstate cities suffer from a cancer. In Buffalo, Rochester and Queshawn’s home town of Syracuse, more than 100 people died in 2015 from acts of violence. The bloodshed destroys young lives. It buries childhood dreams before they ever have a chance.
And it continues.
Dozens more have died this year in those cities. In Buffalo, there were 37 shootings in July. In Rochester, police had recorded 23 homicides for the year, as of Wednesday. In Syracuse, 11 people were shot over the Fourth of July weekend, alone.
The killing is a symptom of a broader despair.
Raised in neighborhoods staggered by violence, Queshawn and his young wife, My-Kellia Jenkins, speak powerfully to the causes of that epidemic.
They also identify their hope:
“I wanted better,” My-Kellia said. “I wanted to get out.”
My-Kellia and Queshawn are both 23. Their escape remains a fragile work in progress. They live now in an apartment in the Strathmore neighborhood of Syracuse, a gracious area of green trees and old homes. Walk a mile, past the invisible barricade between communities, and you are in the place where they grew up. It is a place where too many childhood friends have been lost to prison, drugs ….
Or oblivion. Queshawn, raised amid struggle and temptation, has avoided serious encounters with the law. As a child, he said, he saw a man shot to death. He is a witness to the way hopelessness comes to be.
“If you grow up not knowing where you’re going to sleep at that night, if you grow up without clean clothes unless you wash them in the bath tub, if you grow up knowing you’ve got no grownup to depend on, it’s easy to say you don’t care. It’s easy to stay where you’re at,” Queshawn said.
“You get no respect at home? You get respect in the streets. You get support in the streets. If you get nothing from an adult figure, you know your boys are going to be there for you.”
In return, he said – when you are 15 or 16 or 17 and everything in your life becomes emotion, when you have no dream beyond getting through that day, when a problem down the block turns into the biggest problem in the world – you will do anything for the love and approval of your friends.
That is a truth we must confront, Queshawn said, if we want to stop the carnage.
His example: He was 14 or 15, a high school freshman in Syracuse. His life was chaotic: His mother was a strong figure who did her best, but she worked two jobs, in a medical office and as a cleaning person. It left her little time to be at home. Queshawn’s father, at that time, was not a presence in his life.
Queshawn said he did well in school as a child, but in high school he became a self-described “knucklehead,” drawn to old friends who spent their days on the corner. He chose, more and more, simply not to go to class.
One day, two girls started fighting in a high school corridor. One was Queshawn’s cousin. He pushed his way in, pushed apart the combatants. Friends of the other girl thought he was too rough. They thought he had taken sides.
Taking sides, in that environment, can get you killed.
A few days later, a group of older teenagers attacked Queshawn. They were far from school. There was no one to help. They beat him until he feared that he would die, that he would choke on his own blood.
They left him, battered and humiliated, on the ground.
“That happened, and all I wanted was vengeance,” he said. “All I wanted was to be feared. People want you to be caring, but you learn caring is hard. Caring makes you vulnerable. Caring makes you worry about things that you can’t fix. If you don’t care, you can’t be hurt, and everything will be fine.”
With that attitude, he said, you come to expect an early death. With that attitude, even prison becomes acceptable.
No teacher, no counselor, could penetrate that curtain.
He was caught up in that quest, planning for revenge, when Queshawn first saw My-Kellia.
She used to walk from her home to a corner store, holding tight to her little brother’s hand. She, too, came from a family torn by substance abuse. She was a good student. She had been an oratorical champion as a little girl.
At 15, she was tired of moving, tired of the power being shut off in her apartment, tired of bill collectors who never stopped calling, tired of mice and their remains on the stove and in the food, tired of feeling old while she was still a girl.
What she wanted, above all else, was stability.
She sensed that need, that same hunger, in Queshawn.
He worked up the courage to ask for her phone number. He looked forward to the times when they could simply talk. It was a thrill, but it was also a risk.
He could tell her how he felt. She made him want to care.
His dream of vengeance was no longer his priority. He’d wait to see My-Kellia walking to the store, and he’d surprise her with a meal from a nearby Chinese restaurant. Such quiet kindness, My-Kellia said, locked in her attention.
Before long, they basically were living together. My-Kellia, still in high school, learned she was pregnant. She and Queshawn were furious at themselves. They had already started dreaming about college.
They talked it out. They recalled their childhoods.
They vowed their baby would live out a different story.
As a senior, My-Kellia gave birth to Queshawn Jr. The young couple believed they could both make it, together, through Le Moyne College. It didn’t work. There wasn’t enough money to get by. My-Kellia left school and found a job. Queshawn continued with his classes.
He took advantage of a program, On Point for College, that offers intensive support in pursuit of a diploma. As for My-Kellia, she worked for a time at a nursing home, until she became a full-time clerk for the United States Postal Service.
They do not see themselves as extraordinary. They say they make mistakes. They get exhausted. They sometimes fail. They both say it would be easy to give up, to accept the chaos of the world they knew as children.
Instead, every morning, they push the wheel.
The last 12 months offer testimony. My-Kellia gave birth to My-Lai, their second child. In May, in a monumental triumph, Queshawn graduated from Le Moyne with a degree in psychology. The couple moved into Strathmore, a quiet neighborhood, “where our kids don’t ever have to look at the streets,” Queshawn said.
Nothing comes easy. Queshawn is now working on the maintenance staff at a preschool. My-Kellia was accepted for readmission at Le Moyne. She is juggling her hours so she can work full-time, help care for the children and somehow return to college, this fall, to study for an accounting degree.
They take strength from the greatest moment of their lives. Once Queshawn earned his diploma, he and My-Kellia felt they could finally get married. They had planned on a simple outdoor ceremony in June in a Syracuse park, but they were chased inside by unexpected rain. Rev. Ricky Montgomery led the service at Second Olivet Missionary Baptist Church. He asked the couple to share their vows.
My-Kellia recounted how Queshawn changed her life, how he made her part of what she called a “never ending" story.
As for Queshawn, he started to speak and then wept uncontrollably. He did not need to see the vows that he wrote down. He recalled a fury so intense it overwhelmed all other feelings, how his choices a decade ago seemed certain to turn him “into a statistic.”
In the way of so many young men in these Upstate cities, he said his destiny was a harsh straight line, pointed toward prison ….
Or toward death.
One day, from a corner, he saw My-Kellia.
He gave her hope. She broke apart his despair.
They saw a cure.
Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. You can read more of his work in this archive. Email him at email@example.com.
Story topics: Sean Kirst