For a night, Jordan Hendrickson tried to be green.
The Omaha South High School senior had already agreed to take a younger cousin trick-or-treating, to stand behind him and supervise as the little guy filled his jack-o'-lantern bucket.
But what 18-year-old doesn't want a couple of pieces of Halloween candy? What high school student doesn't secretly want to wander back into childhood, even for an hour?
So on Oct. 31, Jordan found himself an Incredible Hulk costume. He drove his cousin out of north Omaha and headed west, to a neighborhood where they knew they'd find plentiful Snickers and Starbursts and Skittles.
It wasn't until the Omaha South standout running back and his little cousin rang the first doorbell that he realized his mistake.
He'd forgotten The Talk, the racial advice his mother, Shannon Hendrickson, had given him when he hit puberty. He'd forgotten that he doesn't get to wander back into childhood in some situations — not when he's 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds and the sculpted personification of a stereotype.
Jordan had forgotten, just for a moment: He wasn't green.
"As soon as they opened the door, I could see it," he says, months later, grimacing at the memory. Some people likely just were annoyed by his age. Other people seemed ... something else.
"They expected to see this little white kid asking for candy. And here is this big black guy standing there in a costume. Their smiles would vanish. Their eyes would get wide.
"They were worried. I worried them."
The Talk — the conversations about race and stereotyping that black parents often have with their teenage sons — is getting renewed attention as anger intensifies following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old Florida high school student killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer as Martin walked in a predominantly white neighborhood carrying an iced tea and a bag of Skittles.
That Talk may come as a shock to Omaha's white parents, who generally focus on the birds and the bees with their 12-year-olds. But it's commonplace among middle-class black families in north Omaha, says Shannon Hendrickson, where law-abiding young black men can face the specter of gang violence in their neighborhood and mistrust and fear when they leave it.
"You have to understand ... I love my children — I love them — but for years I wished I had girls," says Shannon, an Omaha Public Schools staff member and mother of three boys. "I lived in fear of the phone call, that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now they were dead.
"We live with all this young, male, black-on-black crime (in north Omaha), and now this Trayvon Martin thing? It's insane. There's no other way to explain it."
Shannon sat down her eldest son, Preston, at the kitchen table a decade ago, when he was in sixth grade.
She felt she had no choice: Preston was huge, already pushing 6 feet tall. And Preston had recently been introduced to what the Hendrickson family believes is a burden that black male teenagers sometimes have to bear.
Preston had been walking home from the playground — walking with a couple of younger friends — when police cars rolled up and officers jumped out, Shannon says. They wrestled Preston to the ground, handcuffed him and told him he fit the description of someone who had just held up a nearby store.
There were only two problems: Preston didn't have a weapon. And Preston was 11.
So Shannon started The Talk by focusing on the police, telling Preston and later her middle son, Jordan, that no matter what — no matter how right you think you are — never, ever argue with a police officer.
When Jordan is pulled over, or walks past a police officer, he says he tries to strike a respectful, courteous tone. If he is asked a question, he over-answers it. He can't imagine doing what his white friends sometimes do, arguing with a policeman about a speeding ticket.
"There is just absolutely nothing to gain from that" for a black teenage male, Shannon says.
From there, in the Hendrickson family, The Talk veered into fashion.
Over the years, Shannon has tried to explain to her sons that the low-slung baggy jeans they perceived as cool were often perceived far differently in other parts of Omaha. Those jeans meant they were thugs to many older people, both white and black, she told them. Those jeans meant they were to be feared.
The fashion advice didn't go so well: Shannon bought Jordan button-up dress shirts, but they mostly just gathered dust in the closet, she said.
She told him to avoid wearing red or blue, the traditional colors of the Bloods and the Crips, but that proved tough when Jordan enrolled at South.
"Red is the school color!" Jordan says.
And Shannon made her sons hike up their pants and cinch their belts before they left for school, she says, but, "I'm pretty sure they just went down again as soon as they were around the corner."
Now 18, Jordan sometimes imagines himself as a fashion test case — a one-man social experiment — when he walks in the Old Market or at the mall.
He is able to make small talk with white strangers if he pulls up his jeans and puts on one of his dusty button-ups and maybe laces up some dress shoes.
But things are different if the pants stay down, if he wears his sneakers and pulls his favorite hoodie over his head.
"People look at me as if I'm a horrible person then, like I just stole their car," Jordan says. "And I'm the same person."
Shannon says she never thought about the hoodie itself. Jordan wears them. Her 6-year-old son, Zaheem, a kindergartner at Fontenelle Elementary, wears hoodies all the time.
But the hoodie is very much on her mind now. Thousands of people, including LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates, have donned hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, who was wearing one the night he was shot and killed.
Other people — most notably Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera — have speculated that if Trayvon Martin had been wearing something other than a hoodie, he wouldn't be dead today.
"It's funny ... I'm always telling them to bring (the hoodie) with them when they go out in the morning," Shannon says. "It's like a jacket ... and when you are a mother, you don't want your kids to catch cold."
The Talk touched on mannerisms too, Shannon says — most notably advice on not making sudden movements around police.
But Jordan has learned a whole other set of speech and mannerism rules, he says. He has learned he can talk one way around his friends, but must talk another way around strangers, he says, lest they perceive him as uneducated.
He has learned that he shouldn't make eye contact with young black men he doesn't know in north Omaha. Eye contact is often seen as a threat, a prelude to a fight, he says.
But then he has learned that he should try to make eye contact in other parts of town. If he stares at the ground, that's rude, he says. But it's tricky, he says, because if he makes too much eye contact — stares at a white person a bit too long — then that may be seen as intimidating.
There are other rules embedded in The Talk, Shannon says, rules about not loitering at gas stations or on street corners or walking anywhere in north Omaha where stray bullets sometimes fly. On the porch by 10 p.m., in the house by midnight — and, please, just stay home and invite your friends over and I'll make everyone spaghetti.
And there is a basic rule about strangers, a rule that will sound familiar to every Omaha parent.
If you see trouble, hightail it out of there.
"What are you supposed to do when a stranger is bothering you?" Shannon asks her 6-year-old son.
"Run!" Zaheem yells.
"What else are you supposed to do?"
"SCREEEAM!" Zaheem screams.
Trayvon Martin is believed to have tried to run from George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old son of a white father and Latina mother, in the moments before Zimmerman shot him in the chest. (Zimmerman maintains he fired in self-defense.)
And several neighbors nearby have reported hearing several high-pitched noises just before the sound of a single gunshot. Those noises sounded like a teenager screaming for help, the witnesses say.
Shannon hopes that her three sons see the lesson underlying The Talk, a lesson that she's continued to try to teach her older sons even as they have learned the nuances of growing up big, and black, in Omaha.
It's about trying to put yourself in the other guy's shoes, no matter if they are sneakers or wingtips. It's about trying to understand that sometimes people act a certain way because something bad happened to them in their past.
This is hard for Jordan, he admits. Sometimes he stares back at people when they stare at him. Sometimes he feels sarcastic and cynical and nasty.
"I'm sorry I'm black," he imagines himself saying to the people who stare at him on the street.
Shannon goes to church most Wednesday nights at the Freedom Worship Center, and she's convinced that the message in those sermons will serve her sons well.
This is where she ends The Talk, even though, truth be told, the talk has never really ended.
Try not to cast stones, she tells them. Try to understand. Try to love.
"Kindness," she tells Jordan. "It's how we were engineered. Be kind to people. We just make our lives harder by being horrible to one another."
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