This time, it wasn’t a walkie talkie; this time, it was a text message. This time, my student is not injured; this time, he’s dead. This time, he is not a current student, but a former one, one who we put out after he verbally threatened a teacher.
He was a tall kid, taller than me. A real beanpole of a kid. I always thought that a stiff breeze would break his ankle. He loved baseball. He installed Spotify on my phone. He was good friends with one of the shortest high school girls I’ve ever taught, and they enjoyed the contrast as much as the rest of us did. He was my advisee. His father came to parent conferences. He came to every single one. Did I mention that he had hair like the Muppet Beaker?
I knew he had a gun. I heard him talking about how he and some others had fired at a van that had fired at them. The other students knew. His phone rang once near the end of the school day, and the other students gave him grief about being late for “work.” When I sat down with him one time and asked what it would take to get him to settle down and start trying to do his work, he said high school was a surprise to him, that he was used to just “chillin'” the whole day.
When I sat down with him one time and asked what it would take to get him to settle down and start trying to do his work, he said high school was a surprise to him, that he was used to just “chillin'” the whole day. He had glasses which he didn’t always wear. His handwriting, when he wrote, was tortured and small. It always seemed like it took him a few extra seconds to process what someone was saying to him. He swore. A lot.
He was 17, he was in an elementary school park, likely for no good reason, and now he’s dead. It’s possible that I know before his father does. I saw this article 13 minutes after it appeared on-line (15th homicide in Cleveland this year) and it said that his name would be released after his family was notified. His father probably knows by now.
I was at a meeting this afternoon about the possibility of trying to persuade the City Council to make the city in which I live a Sanctuary City. Having grown up in Washington D.C., I know part of the way to convince those in power to do something is to convince them that the situation is a crisis, that it’s urgent. I said to the group that I didn’t hear that urgency in our arguments, that I didn’t think we had enough to push the Council to act.
But this, this is a crisis. Two students dead. Two injured. 7 facing hearings for expulsion. But when I asked my colleagues if they’d seen anything on-line, one wrote, “Nobody cares about another black kid killed in the streets.” Maybe that sounds cynical, but it is also true. It fits the single story, the single narrative that so many people have about African-American teenage males.
I’m all for individuality responsibility, but when we, as a society, as a city, as a school system, as a community set someone up to fail, we shouldn’t be surprised when they do fail. It shouldn’t take heroic made-for-TV measures for a teenage black male to succeed in our country. So while my student bears some of the responsibility, so do we – all of us.
“A philosopher,” someone once told me, “looking at the stars fell into a ditch.” What’s happening on the national stage requires our attention. And so does this. Right now.
It’s a small thing, but when another student was killed earlier this year, I decided not to create a category for the post. What could I call it? Murder? Violence? Now we’ve had three gun-related incidents this year, and two deaths. I think we need new words.
There will be no heartwarming ads or calls for donations. There will be no tear jerker stories; it may not even make the paper or the news broadcast. But “attention must be paid.”
No more arguing. It’s time to give a damn. Now.