At 10, Kyle Can No Longer Imagine What He Wants To Be When He Grows Up

For Kyle Lyons, parts of childhood are fading into memory as he learns to cope with an uncertain future. His parents fear what the pandemic is doing to him — and his Bronx neighborhood, one of the poorest in the country.

To mark six months since a pandemic was officially declared, BuzzFeed News is publishing The Lost Year series: six stories of six people from six different age groups across the US. Each day this week, we are profiling a new person to see what toll the coronavirus has taken on their lives. In this first installment, we meet a young boy in the Bronx.

When Kyle Lyons was younger, he wanted to be a police officer when he grew up. But now he’s 10, and times — and he — have changed.

Oh, the police officers do good things. They help people,” he said of his prior thinking, in a voice that made it clear he didn’t believe that any longer. “So I really wanted to be a police officer.”

At some point, though, “I just stopped liking police officers.”

Since his change of heart, Kyle has wanted to be many things: a wrestler, an artist who makes pottery, maybe even a professional basketball or soccer player.

But right now, having completed his sixth month cooped up in a New York City apartment, he’s struggling to imagine his future.

“I haven't really put my mind to it, I guess,” he said. “Maybe it's because I'm home so much. I'm just, like, not really thinking about anything. I'm usually just home watching movies, playing video games.”

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit his city in March, questions Kyle had about his future that used to be straightforward have become harder to answer. Will he get to visit family in Puerto Rico this year? Hard to say. What does he want to be for Halloween? He’s not really sure. What about school and his birthday? No one really knows.

As a young Black and Puerto Rican boy in the US, there are also bigger questions that he’s beginning to grapple with, like why do the police keep shooting Black people and what should he do about his friend who used the n-word?

Kyle’s parents — Crystal Bourdon, 30, and Brian Lyons, 34 — have worked hard to send him to a private Catholic school where he gets plenty of personal attention, and to give him opportunities to play and explore so he can develop his own opinions about the world and find his passion.

But despite their best efforts, many of the experiences they wanted for their son have been put on hold due to the pandemic, and they worry that he’s falling behind at school and losing interest in things he used to care about.

“Now, he's even saying, like, 'Nah, I don't want to do basketball.’ And I'm like, ‘Damn! He's been too long without it,’ you know?” said Bourdon. “I'm like, ‘Okay — so what do you wanna do?’ He's still saying he doesn't know.”

“I watched him grow through this pandemic. I watched him grow up a little bit.”

Ten is usually an age of big transitions. As they reach double digits, kids typically become more independent and start building new social skills. But for Kyle, as well as countless others like him, it’s meant learning how to cope with a world that seems to have been turned upside down.

Kyle first heard about the coronavirus from a girl in his class at Our Lady of Lourdes, the Catholic school he attends in Manhattan. He heard it had something to do with bats or maybe a mythical animal in China, but he’s still not exactly sure. The girl in his class was scared, though, and soon Kyle started to get scared too. “In the beginning, I was worried that I was gonna get it,” he said. “I thought I was gonna die.”

He never told his parents how he was feeling or about his fears of dying. But they said he started asking questions about the news. He also became very diligent about handwashing and, when it became common practice, wearing masks.

Lyons said he tried to comfort Kyle and would make sure to snuggle up when they watched movies, but the pandemic has still managed to snatch away some bits of Kyle’s childhood.

“Kyle was very adult about taking the responsibility on and protecting himself and others, as well as reminding us to protect ourselves,” said Lyons. “He sort of became like this little leader. I watched him grow through this pandemic. I watched him grow up a little bit.”

Kyle holds onto his dad's back as they pose for a selfie

Kyle is, objectively, an extremely cute kid with a big smile. He gets quiet and takes his time to think through what he wants to say when he’s talking about something serious, but he can also be effusive, flopping all over the couch with his pile of curls bouncing, when he’s talking about fun things like roller coasters or the video game Fortnite.

He and his parents live in Mott Haven, a neighborhood in the poorest congressional district in the country, the South Bronx. Bourdon and Lyons grew up in the neighborhood too, and Bourdon’s family — including her grandmother — all still live nearby.

The neighborhood has been changing in recent years. Real graffiti is being replaced by graffiti murals. And, before the pandemic, the city started work on the park where Bourdon remembers playing in rubble as a child. There are nice new baseball fields and playgrounds. But it also raised worries for Bourdon about gentrification in the neighborhood that might squeeze out her family. But construction came to a halt on the park when the city shut down in March.

“I think that not only Kyle but other children are probably also falling back because it’s not the same as being in the classroom.”

The area has been shaped by decades of institutional racism and government failures that created fertile ground for the coronavirus to wreak havoc, taking hold in crowded public housing and potentially exacerbated by high rates of asthma, which is so prevalent because of pollution from the surrounding highways. In the first month of the outbreak, the South Bronx and Western Queens were the hardest-hit areas in New York City. In Mott Haven, 1 in every 30 people has now contracted the virus; 1 in every 361 residents has died from it.

“New York state was the hardest hit at that time. New York City was the hardest-hit city within New York state, and our congressional district was the hardest-hit district within the city within the state,” Rep. José Serrano, who is retiring from Congress after 30 years representing the district, told BuzzFeed News. “So stepping outside your door was a danger.”

But it wasn’t just the virus. Staggering unemployment in the neighborhood — more than 30% in some parts of Mott Haven — as a result of the pandemic’s effect on businesses also compounded high rates of food insecurity and already-precarious housing situations. Residents are also still grappling with a forceful crackdown on a local protest against police violence that has further diminished trust among the community.

“And we still had to deal with all these issues that came about. What happened is they were augmented [by the virus],” said Serrano. “Everything that was not going right with how agencies treated the Bronx became bigger issues — have become bigger issues during the pandemic.”

Our Lady of Lourdes started remote learning on March 23. Kyle thought it would be easy at first, but it hurts his eyes to stare at a screen all day.

Math was especially challenging since Kyle was learning long division, and it took him a while to figure out how to make the symbols on the computer. “I’m not used to doing what is on a paper on the computer,” he said. “At the computer, you have to click all these buttons. I eventually got it, but it was still quite hard.”

Kyle is a hands-on learner, Bourdon said, and he gets frustrated when he feels the teacher is moving on too quickly. Online learning has made it hard for even the best teachers to give kids a lot of personalized attention.

“I think that not only Kyle but other children are probably also falling back because it's not the same as being in the classroom setting where the teachers are up to speed and well, up to date, [where] she knows which kid is lacking, which kid isn't, which kids to give more attention to. You know?” said Bourdon. “I think it is hard to keep up.”

Lyons and Bourdon have known each other since they were little kids. Bourdon recalls being 6 or 7 when she first met Lyons, who was friends with her older brother.

Lyons said they would play together a lot as kids. They went to the playground and listened to music, and sometimes as they got older they would stay out late and kiss. “It was bliss,” said Lyons. “We were ignorant to a lot of the stuff that was going on.”

Bourdon dated someone else for a few years in high school, and then they reconnected when Bourdon was 18. Kyle was born about a year later, and they got married in 2010 with a small ceremony and dinner at a restaurant with their families. But they were young and struggled to communicate, eventually separating in 2018. Bourdon kept the apartment and Lyons moved a few blocks away. Kyle now splits time between the two 50-50, switching every Wednesday.

Bourdon and Lyons have reacted differently to social distancing, and it’s been a process to negotiate who it was okay for Kyle to spend time with — something that has been common for many parents negotiating custody during a pandemic. Bourdon is more cautious by nature, while Lyons was eager to maintain some social contact. He said it was especially important to see his mom, who now lives alone in Westchester. He was also worried Kyle would become numb to other people if he was cooped up for too long.

“There's no substitute for human connection,” said Lyons. “We could do the FaceTime thing and use technology...but it's not the same as being physically in front of someone and physically holding someone or telling someone face to face that you love them and you miss them.”

The pair have been able to agree on a situation that works for everyone, but Bourdon said it’s hard not to worry about her son when he’s not with her. “Brian's kind of like a free spirit,” she said. “So it can be a little nerve-wracking. But I know that he wouldn't obviously ever do anything to put Kyle in harm's way.”

Before New York City shut down in March, Kyle was taking ballroom dancing classes downtown. He was supposed to be in a West African dance performance through a program run by the renowned Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation at his school, and he was part of a competitive basketball training program in the Bronx called Gauchos. All of that, of course, went away.

Kyle said being stuck at home all of a sudden this spring was boring. And, more than anything, he misses his friends.

“We didn’t really have anything to do, except really just watch TV or something,” he said, “and you can’t really go outside that much cause of the sickness.”

Friendships are especially important to kids Kyle’s age because they’re developing more independent relationships and learning to navigate more complicated social situations, said David Anderson, who is the senior director of national programs and outreach at the Child Mind Institute. “It’s a stage of a lot of transition, and a lot of move towards independence,” said Anderson.

“We didn’t really have anything to do, except really just watch TV or something,” he said, “and you can’t really go outside that much cause of the sickness.”

Now, the main way Kyle gets to spend time with his friends is by playing video games together online — and they’ve been playing a lot, sometimes several hours each day. They like a couple of games, but the main one is Fortnite, where Kyle is part of a clan with eight other boys his age. The game is enormously popular, and play has surged during the pandemic. It’s primarily a battle game, but the boys are also able to chat and talk to one another over headsets while they play, so Kyle and his friends, like many others, have also been using it as a way to hang out.

“I felt kind of close to my friends because I would play with them every day,” he said, “but other than that I didn’t see them at all.”

Lyons said he’s allowing video games more often than he usually would. “That’s how he’s getting in touch with his friends,” he said. “He’s already had a tough year.”

It hasn’t all been fun, though. If another player is being negative or cursing while Kyle is trying to have fun, he turns down the volume. “I'll be like, Dude, you're being so negative. Like I can't concentrate with the negativity,” he said.

Recently though, someone used a curse worse that couldn’t be ignored. They were playing when all of a sudden one of the boys called Kyle’s friend Daniel, 11, a bad word. Kyle didn’t want to repeat it, but he said it starts with the letter N.

The clan has been debating what to do. The player who leads the group asked each of the members to weigh in on whether the boy who said the bad word should be banned. Fortnite and PlayStation, which is the console they use to play, have strict policies against abusive language, and this boy already has two suspensions. A third complaint could mean that he is banned from not just Fortnite, but all PlayStation gaming. It’s a high price to pay, but Kyle says he’s sick of it. “I really wanted him to, like, learn his lesson,” said Kyle. “He’s just really toxic.”

Kyle and his friends usually only talk about racism “when something really, really bad happens,” but with the killing of George Floyd by police in May and the protests that followed, it’s been impossible to avoid.

The demonstrations came to Mott Haven on June 4. Peaceful protesters stayed out past the curfew instituted by Mayor Bill de Blasio intended to quell looting, and police surrounded and cracked down violently on the group, handcuffing legal observers and people dressed in scrubs, and leaving at least one person so badly hurt that they had to be taken away on a stretcher.

Kyle and his dad also had their own scary interaction with the police while the curfew was in effect. They were out driving shortly before curfew when Lyons said he spotted a group of police in riot gear approaching some Black boys who were playing in the street. Lyons decided to stop the car and step in. He told the officers he would record anything that happened and would file a complaint with the precinct, which he said got them to leave the kids alone.

“I thought that was just like a really stupid decision,” said Kyle.

Lyons didn’t initially respond to this comment from Kyle, but later said he understood where his son was coming from. “If anything happens to me, then he loses a dad,” said Lyons. “That's why I let him have his opinion. ‘Cause I don't ever want him to feel like he's wrong for saying something.”

Bourdon said she and Lyons first started talking with Kyle about race when he was about 5 and they watched the movie Roots together. She tries to present all sides because she doesn’t want him to be biased, but she said it’s also important for him to understand how to behave when he interacts with police.

“I didn't want him to feel as if all police are bad,” said Bourdon. “I always try to remain clear that cops are like — they're people, you know? They're not like people, they are people. So just like people in the world, there are good people and there are bad people.”

When Kyle was little, he watched a lot of Paw Patrol, an animated kids TV show in which dogs work as police officers and firefighters, performing rescue missions. Lyons suspects that’s where Kyle’s interest in being a police officer came from. He isn’t really sure what ultimately caused Kyle to change his mind, but he said they’ve been in the car together a few times when police stopped Lyons, and he had questions about it.

“He's seeing it and it's happening on the news, it's happening on Instagram, and it's happening more and more and more and more and more,” said Bourdon. “And he's like, ‘Okay, wait. So how could it not be everyone?’”

Lyons’ parents immigrated to New York from Jamaica when his mom was 18, and they lived in Harlem until their apartment was shot up, Lyons said. He never got the full story, but afterward he and his brothers were put in foster care for a few years. It was a horrible, abusive experience, and when they got to go back to their parents, the family moved to Mott Haven.

Lyons started spending time at the playground at St. Ann’s Episcopal Church when he was 7 or 8, and he has spent much of his life at the church since then, eventually taking a job managing the property

The church was founded in 1841 and is the resting place for some members of the Morris family, including signers of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, who owned much of the land in the South Bronx long before it was torn apart by Robert Moses and consigned to poverty by redlining.

The current reverend, a white woman named Martha Overall first came to the church in the 70s as a lawyer asked to represent members of the congregation who had occupied the Puerto Rican Community Development project to protest against corruption within the program. She returned as the reverend in 1993, and has expanded the church’s community services, including a food pantry and soup kitchen that have continued to operate throughout the pandemic.

More than 20% of residents in Mott Haven were food-insecure, meaning they don’t have enough food or their access to food is uncertain, as of mid-March, according to Hunter College’s food policy center, but that number has likely grown due to high unemployment. The amount of New Yorkers in need of food assistance is believed to have doubled to about 2 million people since the pandemic began.

St. Ann’s has adapted in order to keep visitors safe when they come for food, with social distancing regulations in line and a handwashing facility provided by Doctors Without Borders. The soup kitchen does takeout meals now, but Rev. Overall said a sense of community has been lost with the changes.

“I feel sad,” she said, “especially for the street homeless because if it rains on a day we have the soup kitchen, they’ve got to eat their food in the rain, and I feel horrible about that.”

Although restrictions eased in New York City over the summer as cases subsided, Lyons said the neighborhood where he’s raising his son still feels unrecognizable. “People here are used to coming outside in front of their buildings during the summer, opening up the pump and playing water games, blasting music, and just enjoying, and dancing with each other or sharing food,” he said. While there’s been some of that this summer, Lyons says that in comparison to years past the streets are barren. “Everyone is masked up, so you can’t really engage with people.”

Kyle still hasn’t been to a water park, and they haven’t been down to Puerto Rico to visit Bourdon’s family this year, although they’ve gone to the beach a few times, and he got to spend a weekend with his best friend, Daniel.

“I almost died, but I did it,” said Bourdon, whose own parents didn’t allow her to do things like go away with friends when she was young. “He had a I’m actually happy I let him go.”

Bourdon, who works for the state’s Division of Housing and Community Renewal as an inspector for rent-stabilized and rent-controlled buildings, was sent home when the state shut down in March. She is back doing inspections again now, but everything on the books for the spring was canceled, meaning tenants had to continue living in potentially unsafe buildings.

They also investigate harassment complaints, which Bourdon said typically come up when an area is gentrifying and landlords refuse to fix apartments in order to get tenants out. Organizers in Mott Haven say the pandemic has not stopped aggressive landlords, and housing advocates worry that the pandemic may make gentrification worse.

For Bourdon, the issue is also personal. Both sides of her family moved to Mott Haven from Puerto Rico. Her mom’s side has been in the neighborhood since her grandmother first moved there, and her parents met in Mott Haven after her dad moved there as a boy.

Her grandmother, who has been homebound since the pandemic began, has lived in the same building for about 50 years, but it was bought by a new landlord recently and the family is concerned that she could be forced out too. “It’s kind of a stressful situation because we don’t know who it’s going to affect or when it’s going to hit home,” said Bourdon. “It’s obviously affected some people in the neighborhood already.”

With both parents back at work full time, Kyle has been spending a lot of his time during the week at his grandmother’s apartment. He gets up early when they go to work and gets dropped at the door, while his grandma, Mary Bonilla, waits for him at the top of the stairs.

“In my head I was like, Well, Kyle will be a fifth-grade dropout because he’s not going back to school in September if the coronavirus is still this bad.”

Then he takes a nap or scrolls through TikTok. He plays a little bit with the other kids who live in the building, but he still misses his friends from school.

At the peak of the crisis in New York in the spring, Bourdon wasn’t sure if she would ever send Kyle to class again. “In my head I was like, Well, Kyle will be a fifth-grade dropout because he’s not going back to school in September if the coronavirus is still this bad,” she said.

With school set to start soon, she and Lyons are scared. They’re worried that it won’t be clean enough or kids will be irresponsible with their masks. They’ve also both heard rumors that make them nervous. Bourdon had heard that if a kid was sent to school with symptoms of COVID-19, they would immediately be sent to a hospital and a social worker would be called.

“That could be lies, I’m not sure,” she said, adding she planned to do more research. “But it just makes me fearful...are you automatically going to snatch them away?”

Lyons is worried that kids who go back to school could be forced to take an untested vaccine. “It's a scary choice for me,” he said. (State, city, and Catholic school officials who spoke with BuzzFeed News said both of these speculative fears were unfounded.)

For now, the plan is for Kyle to return to Our Lady of Lourdes for a hybrid program, where he’ll have in-person classes two days a week. But Bourdon is still afraid. “I wanted him to do complete remote learning,” she said, “but he expressed to me that he didn't feel that remote learning five days a week was the best option for him.”

Kyle doesn’t love school, as a rule, but he’s still glad to be going back. “I would just rather go back to school, sitting in front of the teacher while she's teaching the lesson,” he said.

Beyond the start of the new school year, no one is really sure what the fall holds. Kyle is hoping he’ll get to go to Puerto Rico for his birthday in November. Halloween would also usually be a big deal. Bourdon would typically take Kyle out of school for the day and they would go to the Bronx Zoo, which has pumpkin carving and magic shows. Then they would go trick-or-treating along 138th Street, the commercial strip in Mott Haven.

In the past, Kyle has been a skeleton, Mickey Mouse, the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, and a ninja. A recent favorite, though, was Pennywise, the murderous clown from the Steven King horror story It. It was a decidedly more adult costume for Kyle — and he said the movies scared him, but he braved it all anyway. Bourdon watched a bunch of YouTube videos to get the makeup just right.

But, much like what he wants to be when he grows up, Kyle isn’t sure what he’ll be for Halloween this year. Like many of the once regular beats of his childhood, it’s something that’s mostly a memory for now.

“I don't know. I didn't really think about Halloween this year,” he said. “I don't know if I'm going to stay home.” ●

At 10, Kyle Can No Longer Imagine What He Wants To Be When He Grows Up
For Kyle Lyons, parts of childhood are fading into memory as he learns to cope with an uncertain future. His parents fear what the pandemic is doing to him -- and his Bronx neighborhood, one of the poorest in the country.
Jackie Russo for BuzzFeed News
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