Let me tell you about Randy. If you met him when I did, you would see a seventh-grader with a strong sense of self. The thing about middle schoolers is that they so rarely know who they are yet. When a kid does stand with an uncharacteristic self-assurance, kids are often drawn to them like a moth to a flame.
Randy chose to sit by himself in the back of my classroom. He was beloved by classmates, but he knew he focused better in the back. He liked to put on a show that he ‘had’ to sit in the back away from his friends, but we both knew it was his choice.
Randy got in trouble for dealing Gushers and Fruit Roll-ups out of his locker, primarily because our school had an aggressive mouse issue. I found out on PowerSchool one day what his middle name was, and you should have seen the way his entire face melted into a smile when I yelled his full name down the hallway. Some of my best teaching memories involve him. Teaching him was one of my many privileges.
Randy is the fifth student that sat in my middle school classroom and was killed by gun violence. The first time I answered a phone call that told me one of our students had been shot and killed, I audibly yelled. His funeral was in the summer after his eighth-grade year. I held hands with another student, his classmate when we went up to his open casket. It didn’t look like him. He almost always won our class debates in his 8th grade English class. He was a deep thinker and a good listener. A year later, one of his best friends, another classmate, was shot and killed.
I cry every time I hear the news of a student passing–sometimes immediately, sometimes days later. It doesn’t hurt less, but it has stopped shocking me. It has ceased to evoke the guttural yell. And maybe that’s the worst part.
My has life changed, jobs changed, and I moved away from the neighborhoods where my students lived. These days I get irritated when a neighbor continues to park in front of our house. You should see the anger that spews forth from me when this neighbor’s teenage kid parks in front of our house every day. I made my husband get the HOA involved. Yep. I’m that woman. I try to isolate my feelings of frustration—dig into it and think about why I’m irritated. I think this small inconvenience feels “unfair” or “unjust” to me. Can you imagine? That’s my line for “unfair.”
I have had been a teacher in the suburbs, in Chicago Public Schools, and most recently at a charter school in the city. I have seen, but could never begin to understand, what it means to thirteen-year-olds in starkly different zip codes. It is a nauseating and heart-wrenching study in disparities.
I’m not nearly smart enough to imagine how to solve the world’s inequities, but I know education is a start. I know that systemic racism is painfully real. I know that a kid has a right to be a kid, wherever they are planted. Sometimes I wonder what if my students had been lost to gun violence in my little suburban pocket? Wouldn’t the world stop turning? Wouldn’t the news show the horror of it? Wouldn’t we ban together to protect the children?
Maybe I’m writing this to hold myself more accountable, to remind myself not to compare my house with my friend’s recently upgraded home. Maybe I am writing this because I am guilt-ridden for not attending the last two student funerals because of COVID. Maybe I am writing this as my own goodbye to my students. I couldn’t say for sure, but I can tell you, unequivocally, that these were good kids. These were kids who were named after their fathers, who were fiercely loved by mothers and grandmothers, who ushered kindergarten siblings onto the bus, whose grandfathers walked to school, leaning on canes, to make it parent-teacher conferences.
These kids had love, and they certainly worked hard to show up every single day. At some point, at some imperceptible intersection, the curbs crumbled, and the streets sloped, and the world began to tilt out of their favor. Please, God, let me think of this and not my neighbor’s stupid car when I dare to conjure up the word “unfair.”