Wednesday, June 22, 2016
In the debate over gun legislation, one question hangs over all. Have you personally lost anyone - a friend, a student, a relative, a co-worker - to gun violence? For most people I expect that the answer is not only "no," but "what are you talking about?" I passed the first 47 years of my life never having known anyone who got shot to death by someone else. This is an "inventory" of those I knew who were murdered by gun, beginning that 47th year.
Angel was my TA first semester one year at a large comprehensive high school in a tough, gang-infested neighborhood. He was from that neighborhood, had graduated from that high school, and was currently enrolled in a community college, where he was taking the required classes in order to transfer to a four-year university, where he hoped to complete his BA and get his teaching credential. I mentored him as he worked with my ESL students, and encouraged him to come back to our school and teach, citing examples of others who had preceded him down that very path. He moved to another teacher's class second semester, but we continued to chat when we passed in the halls or ran into each other in the office. One weekend at the very end of March, he and his brother, then a senior at our school, went to visit some cousins in a nearby state. His cousins gave a party. Some outsiders tried to crash it, but were turned away. They came back with guns. Angel never knew what hit him. He was across the room when the intruders burst in, but a bullet severed his aorta, and he bled out in his brother's arms.
Darryl was a student in my 10th grade English class. Second semester he came back without his glasses. He'd sat on them over our track's two-month break at our year-round campus. I spent a lot of time on the phone with his mom, the social service agency that had to OK payment for replacement glasses, and the optical shop making the glasses. He was using the lack of glasses to cover for his lack of effort, which resulted in further conversations with my friend the football coach. By the end of the semester, Darryl was back on track, and we broke for the summer. When we returned in the fall, I heard that he'd been shot in the stomach while riding the Metro bus. He'd survived, but football was out of the question. He also fell behind, and was transferred to a continuation campus, where he could work to catch up at his own pace. I visited that campus at the end of that school year to meet with another teacher and ran into Darryl. He was back on track to graduate the following year and had signed to join the Navy after graduation. Both my teacher friend and the principal were pleased with his effort and leadership. The following year, I had left the large comprehensive campus and transferred to a different continuation campus. All of my large district's small campuses held their graduation at a single location, so I went looking for my teacher friend, and for Darryl, whose name was on the unified program for the annual graduation event. I did not see her at the location indicated for her school's students to gather. The students told me she'd be there shortly. Then I asked about Darryl. Every single student looked taken aback, and they all looked down at the sidewalk. At that moment my friend appeared, and when I asked her, she said, "You didn't hear?" Darryl had completed all his classes in April, but had delayed his departure to Navy basic training so that his mom could see him cross the stage and get his diploma. That delay proved fatal....another bullet.
Clifton's mom was an LVN, who was deeply involved in her children's lives. Clifton was her son from a previous marriage or relationship. She had two children with his step-father. I met her at parent night in the fall semester and it was evident from that meeting why Clifton was such a pleasure to have in that 9th grade honors English class. Because it was honors, the students had a huge reading assignment to complete over our two-month "off track" time in January and February, and I'd told them that I'd be calling at least twice to check up on them. Calls began the second week of January. I was able to contact almost everyone, but no one ever answered at Clifton's house; therefore, at the end of the month I called one of his two best friends from middle school. After an endless string of questions, and another call to Clifton's other best friend, I finally pieced together the entire story. Clifton's mother and step-father had gotten into an argument. The step-father stormed out, got a gun, stormed back in and shot Clifton's mom dead in front of her three kids. She died in Clifton's arms.
Felix was a textbook ADHD kid. He could not keep quiet or remain in his seat for more than a few minutes at a time, so keeping him focused and on track was always a bit of a challenge. A student at the continuation campus to which I had transferred a year before he arrived, his saving grace was his good humor and cheer. His problem was his inability to know when not saying something would be better or safer than shooting off his mouth. Added to that was a fascination and perhaps "wannabe" involvement with a gang in his neighborhood. Not a good combination. Shortly after the principal of our tiny campus decided that Felix would be better off at a different campus, he was killed....execution style....most likely by his own homies, according to word on the street.
Those are the four people I knew personally who lost their lives to gun violence. My students knew countless others, including in some cases their own parents, other family members, friends and neighbors. For them, the possibility of violent death was ever present. This is not acceptable. It has never been acceptable, and the fact that it has been tolerated for so long gives the lie to the myth of national "greatness" that is propagated by so many.