As anyone who’s worked with kids — and “kids” in this sense are “any human being whose class hasn’t graduated from high school yet” — will tell you, upon meeting/working with a new set, you immediately get favorites…and least favorites. Obviously, you shouldn’t treat your least favorites different than your favorites — how much you immediately “like” a kid usually depends on completely arbitrary variables such as whether your personalities are compatible or if they happened to rock a Lakers’ sweatshirt the first time you met them — but it’s just human nature to like some kids a bit more and some a bit less.
And, as anyone who’s worked with kids will also tell you, sometimes the least favorites end up being your favorites.
Jordan Spence was one of those kids.
Brash, loud, and frequently (and, sometimes, hilariously) inappropriate, Jordan was, to put it lightly, a handful. If I remember correctly, my first encounter with him was in 2006. I was running a basketball clinic for pre-teens at a Pittsburgh-area (McKeesport) YMCA, and Jordan was one of the high school kids who had been hired by my boss to work for me. On the first day of the clinic, I arrived at the gym maybe an hour or so before it was supposed to start to iron out any last-minute logistics. But of course, I just ended up doing what every (former) basketball player does when alone in an empty gym — shoot baskets.
Maybe 10 minutes into my solo workout, I heard one of the gym’s side doors open as I took a shot. When I went to grab the rebound, I felt a person rush past me, grab the ball, scream “Get up, little dude. Get your weight up,” and join me in shooting with an “I don’t even have to introduce myself” familiarity that suggested we were long buddies or maybe even peers. Damon Young, meet Jordan Spence. I was so annoyed that I didn’t even recognize the comedic irony in Jordan — who clocked in at around 300 pounds and probably had a 2.5 inch vertical leap — telling me to “get up.”
The next couple of months weren’t any better. Along with working for me during the clinics, Jordan was also a student in one of the academic programs I ran at the Y, and perhaps 70% of the complaints from other kids and staff were somehow Jordan-related. (They all seemed to start with the same eight words: “Mr. Damon, can you tell Jordan to stop…”)
But, as I got to know Jordan better, I started to see that beneath the brashness and the big voice was an innocence and a legitimate intellectual curiosity that thirsted for knowledge and new experiences outside of McKeesport. He’d pepper me with questions about college and driving and music and clothes and girls and if “college girls were different than McKeesport girls” and would continue even after I’d remind him that he asked the exact same questions a week earlier. He always, always had jokes —he remains one of the five or ten funniest people I’ve ever known — but his “rips” were never mean-spirited. He just really enjoyed getting people to laugh. Also — and this is a very, very rare quality — he’d only rip on the kids who could dish it out, and was just as quick to laugh at a good joke made at his expense. Basically, he did it to entertain, not to bully.
I worked at that Y for a year. In that time, Jordan went from a perpetual exasperator to the one kid I’d miss the most when leaving that job.
A month or so ago, I happened to run into my old boss at the Y. After a few minutes of sharing updates about our respective lives, the subject turned to Jordan, and I found out that he enrolled in culinary school and was still around McKeesport, working and (most importantly) staying out of trouble. It was the best news I heard all week.
Jordan died in a motorcycle accident three weeks later.
Now, I realize that some reading this may be wondering why Jordan’s life and death merited this space. He was a relatively “unremarkable” kid who died in a relatively “unremarkable” fashion. He wasn’t killed by an overzealous neighborhood watchman, and his death wasn’t captured on YouTube or WorldStar. If fact, after first receiving the call from my nephew (also a friend of Jordan’s) to let me know he passed, it took maybe five hours for the local news stations to run a short blurb on his death. There will be no scholarship funds created in his name, no national campaigns to raise money for his funeral costs, no statues erected in his honor.
His “unremarkable” life is exactly why he deserves this space. Everyday, hundreds of newspapers are filled with short two and three sentence blurbs to report on the deaths of Black kids who, quite frankly, haven’t lived long enough or done anything important enough to merit an actual obituary. Today may be about the relatively unremarkable life of Jordan Spence, but it’s also a remembrance for the too easily forgettable, an obit for the obit-less, a small bit of recognition for the kids who could have been but didn’t see enough years to actually be.
I last saw Jordan several months ago. I was at a stoplight on the way to see the “The Hunger Games,” and my date told me that there was someone in the lane next to me, wildly gesturing for my attention. To my delight, it was Jordan, pushing a souped-up green Caddy — possibly the only thing on the street as brash and loud as he was. Because of the noise of the street, we were only able to have one of those manic conversations where the body language and the smiles are more important than the actual words exchanged. (We both must have screamed some variant of “How are you doing???” and “What’s going on???” five times each)
When the light changed, he smiled one last time and sped off; possibly headed to the mall or Mickey D’s or his mom’s house or wherever else 21 year olds decide to go on Friday nights. The possibilities were literally endless.
When my date asked me who it was, I laughed and shook my head for maybe 15 seconds before finally replying “That’s Jordan. He was one of my favorite kids.”
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