Last month I read the powerful book “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” (2015) by Jeff Hobbs. Robert Peace was 30 years old when he was murdered in 2011. Peace was a marijuana dealer in Newark killed by a rival drug pusher. But Peace was much more than a drug dealer. People focus on his status as an African-American straight-A Yale graduate in molecular biophysics and biochemistry who grew up on the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey—regarded as the most dangerous city in America in the 90s. But he was also a graduate of St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark and later taught and coached there.
Hobbs summarized the purpose of St. Benedict’s:
At St. Benedict’s, academics represented only a fraction of the faculty’s responsibility. Test scores were in many ways secondary to the task of instilling confidence in kids not promised to believe in themselves and confronting emotional issues resulting from the loss of a parent, usually a father…The expansive counseling system was a fundamental part of the curriculum, as well as the teacher rotation—without overtime pay—that kept the school’s doors open on weekends to students seeking a quiet place to work away from harried homes. (103)
His life illustrates the tremendous impact that poverty and its accompanying trauma can have on a person. Peace’s father was sent to prison when Peace was only 7 years old, convicted of murdering two women in the same apartment building. His father later died in prison. Peace’s mother worked as a cook and was dedicated to his education, working long hours to send him to Catholic school.
At a young age, Peace found a way to make extra money selling drugs on the side. Incredibly, he was able to maintain high grades and excel as a water polo player at high school and at Yale while heavily using and selling marijuana. While at Yale, he built up a strong drug distribution network which allowed him to clear over $200k in profit in his four years. After graduation, he dabbled in many different schemes to make money while maintaining his drug dealing. He was able to travel the world courtesy of his profits. Hobbs portrays him as brilliant, hard-working, and entrepreneurial. Perhaps his most successful attribute was being able to compartmentalize his life.
But he was never able to shake the shackles of his past. The trauma of his past (violence, crime, dysfunctional family, abuse) contributed to his fractured life—never able to make authentic connections, never able to break away from crime. By all accounts, Peace’s life was a failure. Why? How could this have been prevented? Did his Catholic school environment fail him? His family? Or can you view this as simply a moral failure by an individual?
Hobbs doesn’t answer this question. But it’s a challenge to all educators to understand the impact that trauma has on our students and how we can confront and minister to the challenges of trauma.