STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Viral video of world's happiest kid makes me kinda sad

screen grab from user griffvision on YouTube

It's 16 seconds of condensed, unadulterated joy. The boy stands on a bench, as hockey player Jordin Tootoo approaches, headed for the locker room. 

"Tootoo!" the boy shouts. 

Tootoo stops, and hands the boy his stick.

"It's all yours," he says. 

  "Yeaaaah!" the boy explodes. The camera zooms in on his face for the biggest, happiest grin you'll see all day. 

It's infectious and joyous and it's no surprise the video is going viral. 

But it also makes me kinda sad. 

I blame my job. As a reporter for State of Opportunity, it's my job to pay attention to all the kids who, in a way of putting it, aren't smiling. The kids who don't get hockey sticks, real or metaphorical, just handed to them. I report on kids in poverty, kids burdened with disadvantage in one form or another: developmental, social, racial, economic. 

And so, as I watched the near-perfect moment of a child's joy on a gif loop, I stopped looking at the boy with the big smile. I saw the other kids around him. 

One kid in particular, an African-American girl in the stands behind the glass at the top right of the video frame. She watches as Tootoo hands his stick to the happy boy. She leans far over the railing, extending her hand, hoping just to get a high five from the man in the hockey uniform. Her fingers nearly brush his mask, but he doesn't see.* He walks on by, leaving her hanging, while the boy with his new hockey stick smiles and the camera zooms in on him. She is gone from the frame. 

It took me a moment to realize this scene happened in my own city. If I were more of a hockey fan, I'd know that Jordin Tootoo plays for the Grand Rapids Griffins, a minor league franchise that plays in an arena just three miles from my house. 

So the kids in the video are kids in my community. And I know these kids are growing up in a segregated community, where your race determines your neighborhood and often your opportunities in life, and where minorities are the majority in the city school district and the graduation rate is only 50%. Michigan recently came in third-worst in the country in a ranking of outcomes and opportunities for black kids.

It's hard for me to not see the girl in the video as a kind of stand-in for all the black kids in my community who are reaching out, and not being seen.  

Still, if those kids in the video hadn't been at a hockey game, maybe I wouldn't have noticed, or maybe I wouldn't care. Hockey is not known for its diversity, on the ice or in the stands. The fact there's a kid of color there at all says something positive about my local team.  

The player in the video, Jordin Tootoo, also embodies the growing diversity in hockey. He is the NHL's first Inuk player, and he remains an active role model in Canada's Aboriginal community. He created a non-profit, the Team Tootoo Fund specifically to help at-risk kids, with a focus on suicide prevention (Tootoo's own brother committed suicide in 2002).

The boy in the video is obviously a huge fan. A representative for the team told me he's the grandson of a long-time season ticket holder. Every night, the team chooses one lucky kid to have a special experience, standing on the bench as the players come off the ice. The night in the video was this kid's lucky night. 

On other nights, I hope more children of color have gotten the chance to stand on that bench. I'm sure that's the case. 

Maybe I'm just overthinking the video, or seeing the wrong things. 

Maybe it's just an incredibly special moment with an incredibly happy kid. It had to be rare to be special. It had to happen to only one kid, and this kid seems like a great kid. Wanting the girl to get her high five doesn't mean I want the boy to not get his hockey stick. That's not what diversity and inclusion is about. 

It is about having a broader focus. Seeing all the kids in the frame, instead of just the one in the middle.

*This line was edited for clarity.  

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.