This morning at my school, we started Monday morning staff meeting with a grave announcement: a former student was shot and killed last night a little over a mile from school. He attended our school as a freshmen and would be a member of the junior class. At school today, we are asking students for their best work and effort, asking them to meet our high academic and behavior expectations and expecting mastery of concepts taught in class, just like any other day. Most importantly, though, we are asking students to notify social workers if they are having trouble, we are asking them to love and support each other and we are teaching them that there is no “right way” to grieve.
The worst part is, he isn’t the first kid; we had a similar day last month when a former student was killed by police. The worst part is, this isn’t the first lesson our social work team has put together for homerooms with a similar theme, it’s the third in as many months. And the worst part of all, is that he won’t be the last kid.
Almost daily, I think back to the Friday afternoon that Spring Break started.
The weather was warm and sunny and following the staff vs student basketball game, the excitement and joy in the air was infectious. As I walked toward my car, I stopped to talk to two infamous freshmen boys. I told one to pull up his pants and asked what they were going to do over break. One responded “stay out in the streets all night…drinking….drinking Pepsi… til my lungs explode,” then burst out laughing. I switched to mom role saying maybe they shouldn’t stay out at night. I then got serious and told them they needed to be smart, and stay out of trouble because “I expect to see you back here next Monday morning.” They swore they’d behave.
As I walked across the street, there were two junior boys approaching two teacher friends I was also walking towards. As they passed the three of us, I told them to enjoy their break. They responded, “Make good choices, I need to see you back here on Monday morning.” And they laughed.
I almost cried on the spot. The fact that they had taken the words out of my mouth meant that they had been told those exact words several times that afternoon. I knew, and more importantly, they knew, that my fellow teachers had taken the time to remind them to be smart, to remind them just how much they are cared for and to remind them that there is danger around them at all times.
And yet, for all our warnings and our reminders to “be good and be safe” (quote credit to my Dad), to “make good choices, to “be smart,” they are just that. Warnings. Reminders. And reality is, they are nothing our kids don’t already know. Nothing they don’t hear at home or think to themselves when they leave the house. They are words, with no power to protect my students from gunshots fired into a crowd as they wait for the bus after school or stray bullets at 10pm when they are walking home after a long shift at their after-school job.
Chicago is a war-zone. The average number of deaths by gunshot is in the double digits every weekend. Right now, Chicago is on track to have more murders this year than last year, by a large margin, a particularly frightening stat since Chicago had more murders than any other city in the country last year. The worst part is, as with any war, the battles are concentrated in pockets- in this case, a few neighborhoods-and those neighborhoods are where my kids live, work and go to school.
Just now as I was writing this during my lunch break, a student came up to my desk, asking for a calendar so he could count the days until he begins his pre-med summer program at Marquette. He counted them and relayed the information to me-27 days.
He then said, “I won’t be here for Fourth of July.”
Thinking he was sad about missing the holiday at home, I said that was a bummer, but I was sure Milwaukee would have something fun going on.
He tilted his head at me, confused. Then clarified, “No, it’s good, I don’t want to be here. Fourth of July is dangerous-you don’t know if you have to run or not because you aren’t sure if it’s gunshots or just fireworks.”
How sad that while I think of BBQs and time at the lake or pool, he thinks of gunshots and fireworks being confused.
Over the weekend, I read a news story about how the old Post Office in the city was going to be renovated to hold shops and restaurants and how much this would mean for the city of Chicago. A man from Englewood, another impoverished, violence-ridden neighborhood spoke out saying there is too much focus on helping the parts of Chicago that tourists see and no focus on helping the neighborhoods that need it.
I see plans for a new post office strip with shops and restaurants and my first subconscious thought is “That would be fun to check out on a nice day,” while many others see the line in the story about making Chicago better and immediately think, “What about my neighborhood? Where’s the plan and funding to make it better?”
This is a kind of privilege that most people don’t realize exists.
So, Chicago, I ask: Where is the strategy for making neighborhood streets safe? The plan for reducing or eliminating the thousands of illegal guns that are brought into Chicago from Indiana and killing dozens each week? For preventing gangs from luring in children who are 10 and 11 years old with promises of money, fame and protection for their families from the violence they already know too much about? Only to turn them into child soldiers and then take that same promise of protection, flip it and threaten to hurt or kill them and their families if they try to leave?
When will it all end? When will there be a last kid?
It is not well with my soul.