A tale of teens, guns – and hope

by | Jun 9, 2013 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He walks in the room with a plastic helmet over his head. He sits. He takes off the helmet. You can see the damage on the right side of his head. Sixty days earlier, he had gone to a best friend’s party, things got out of hand, and as the party was breaking up – with some kids cheering “East side” and some “West side” – a gun was fired, and Balaal Hollings went down.

Cheers and bullets. An incongruous pairing. But no more incongruous than being a child in Detroit, where youthful innocence meets adult horror every day of the week.

So Hollings, captain of the football, baseball and golf teams at Northwestern High School, voted pretty much everything by his senior class, the rarest currency in our city – a kid smart enough, talented enough and motivated enough to rise above – was on the ground.

Not surprisingly, he popped back up.

“You all right?” a friend said.

“Yeah,” he said, “but I been hit.”

And he went down again.

He was rushed to DMC Sinai-Grace Hospital. The doctor who operated figured Hollings had no chance. The bullet entered the right side of his head, destroying part of his skull and lodging in his brain. “He was essentially,” the surgeon, Aria Sabit, told the Free Press, “the definition of dead.”

But this is Detroit.

Good and bad, we make our own definitions.

Dreams of college

Sixty days after being shot, Hollings sits in front of me. His voice is mostly steady, his vocabulary full. His smile comes as easy as poured syrup.

He is 6 feet 1, was close to 320 pounds before the incident, and played offensive and defensive lineman for Northwestern, snapping the ball on one side, hulking over it on the other. “I was gonna go to college to play,” he says. “Before this.”

“This” has changed things. The bullet remains in his brain, too precarious to remove. His rehabilitation has been no less than stunning – even medical people blink and shake their heads – but, he says, he can still only walk 500 feet unassisted. With typical youthful buoyancy, he declares, “I’m fully rehabilitated.” But there is work to be done.

With grace, he will do it. Hollings already has survived more than one kid should have to. His father, he says, “went to jail when I was 3.” His mother died two years ago “of a heart attack in her sleep.” His older sister became his legal guardian.

Hollings kept going. He was elected class president and voted most likely to succeed. He played six sports. The day of the party, he had just come back from a trip across the South, where students played golf, visited universities and saw cultural institutions as part of the Midnight Golf mentoring program.

“I should have just stayed in bed,” he says.

Always have faith

You may have heard already about Balaal Hollings – or you will soon. The Free Press’ Cassandra Spratling profiled him Saturday. And, in a YouTube culture, he is a video must-see, surprising his high school last week by walking into graduation and delivering a speech – as he planned to do before the gunfire. When they saw him in a gown, a pink tassel on his helmet, his classmates roared their approval.

Cheers and bullets.

“It is so good to be alive,” he told the crowd. And they roared again – in part for him, and in part, maybe, for themselves, because here was a teens-and-guns story that didn’t end in a funeral. We have so many of those. Too many. Gun assaults have risen steadily in Detroit the past few years. The incidents involving children have been horrifying. Hollings says that – contrary to early reports – there was no real fight at the party, that the shooters were just celebrating themselves. That may be even sadder.

“The only people who should have guns is military and police officers,” he says, shaking his wounded head. “It’s scary.”

It is. But Hollings’ smile is inspiring – as is his plan to attend Wayne State University in the fall. He puts his helmet on before leaving. He lifts his big frame from the table. I ask him what he has learned.

“Don’t go to house parties.”

Anything bigger? “Yeah … whatever you want to believe in, just believe in a higher power…. Because it was somebody’s doing that allowed me to be talking to you today.”

Balaal Hollings shakes my hand and walks away – a miracle in itself. He turned 18 this month. A legal Detroit adult. We can only pray it’s all cheers and no bullets from this point on.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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