By Anne Gottlieb
The school where I have worked for 15 years does not look like a school. Many people pass the plain, two story, square building daily on Chicago Avenue and have no idea what it is. It doesn’t look like a regular high school because it’s not. The school serves high school dropouts and helps them earn their high school diploma. Day-in and day-out 150 students and 15 staff members come together quietly to do the work of teaching and learning without much fanfare or fuss. This work knits students and staff together in a special way. Students come to the school for many different reasons and no two are quite the same. While they attend school, we get to know their stories. Housing and food instability are constants for some students. Many young mothers come to our school to finish because they got off track from graduating when they were pregnant. Childcare can be a huge obstacle. Some students want a way out of selling drugs and being part of a gang. We try to solve as many problems as we can with them and help them persevere. We make them an unwritten promise that education will be a way for them to put the pieces of their lives together. Most of them believe us.
Recently, two cops, a man and a woman, showed up at the school just after first period started and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. They stood at the front desk talking with the receptionist and she quickly shot me a look. The look meant they were looking for a student because I had seen that look before. Sometimes they just want to ask a student questions, but a few times they have arrested students in the building. Those times are terrible. We try everything we can to break the school to prison pipeline. We offer safety and sanctuary inside the school building and being cuffed can be a rough and even violent act. The few times I have witnessed it, I felt like I had betrayed the student, whether he was innocent or not.
I walked towards the desk, eager to move the police officers away from the very public space. I heard: A young man has been shot. A rush of things went through my brain: One of ours? Who? But because they hadn’t said a name, I was in complete denial that the boy was one of our students. I guided the police officers to the Dean of Student’s office. Once we closed the door, the police explained: A boy was found about six blocks away. Shot several times. And the neighbors are saying he is one of yours. He has no ID, but they think he goes to this school.
The Dean asked: Is he alive?
The police said that one of the shots was to the stomach and the boy was taken by ambulance to a hospital so they didn’t know his status. The scene was covered in blood. Blood everywhere, the male police officer adds. I didn’t want to hear about the scene or the blood. I just wanted to know who it was. The woman begins a description: medium height, medium complexion, short cropped hair, grey hoodie. My brain responded with the thought that this could be any one of a dozen boys we have. That are ours. Grey hoodie. I thought of G'avon. He hustles a lot but also wants to leave the life. I just saw him on the corner when I arrived at school about 40 minutes ago but maybe he walked away instead of walking inside.
My brain knows that the timing didn't work out. My mind was blank of any boy fitting the description. 5' 5", medium complexion, short hair, grey hoodie. Suddenly, G’avon walked by the Dean’s office down the hall. In my head, I fell to my knees and took a breath and thanked God. I thanked G'avon for not wandering down the block but coming into school. I thanked G’avon for being alive.
I opened the door and said good morning to him just to see him smile and then ran to my office for a class schedule to start looking through names of students. These names could be names of young boys that might have just been shot three times, one of the bullets went clear through. The police give a few more details each time the recount the scene: a red car pulled up and shot the boy walking by himself to school. He walks there every day the neighbors said. He walks there everyday on his way to school. That school on the Ave.
None of the names fit the description: maybe 5'7", medium complexion, big eyes, round eyes, grey hoodie. And one cop asked if we have pictures and I pull up the computer program that creates the ID cards. We crowded around the computer screen to scroll through pictures looking for boys who might have been shot. We thought of Tremaine. He was not at school yet. He could have been wearing a hoodie. Iveill. Now, my mind started to clear: Justin W., Corey, Marquez, Justin J. Which ones fit the description? Boyish face. Which ones run on the streets? Which ones are not in the building?
Another question screams out to me: Does it matter who might be selling drugs? Who might be gang affiliated? An 18 year old boy has been shot and probably killed. And teachers, cops, and the news all focus on why that young person deserved it instead of all of the problems that have contributed to young people in Chicago getting killed in the street. What context justifies this in a healthy society? This gnawing question doesn’t leave so I skipped over it for the time being.
The Dean called Tremaine's mom just to check and told her that he hadn't arrived yet and we just wanted to know if he was coming to school today. She said yes, he had just left the house a few minutes ago. I breathed as I put myself in that mother’s shoes. I am a mother of three boys. She didn’t know all of the details of the call; to her it was routine. But I bond to her and the fact that we did not need to deliver terrible news to her today. Today she and her son were spared.
We all started to think the boy that had been shot was Iveill. He had been disconnected from school lately and sabotaging his grades. He started the year strongly committed to his education and a plan. We had put him out of school last spring for being involved with an incident of another student getting jumped on. He wasn’t the aggressor but he told others where to find the student. He went to see family in Tennessee in the summer and was going to go back as soon as he got his diploma. Life was better there, as he described it. He wanted to come back and graduate. After several conferences with the Dean and me, we registered him for school. The first few weeks went smoothly. He seemed focused and to positively engage with his classes. Then he started being tardy for class in the morning and after lunch. He wandered during class but we are such a small building that we all know when students are spending more time out of class than in. We heard that he was back on the street selling drugs. The power of life on the block. We can't always pull them away. They don't always buy what we're selling.
We have to do better because the old way of doing school isn’t engaging students. The promise of a good job that will support a family if a student graduates high school is broken. I have to create a new pact with students like Iveill that help him see another way of succeeding. This means building positive personal relationships and part-time jobs to put money in their pockets legally, and helping them believe in an accessible, alternate future. These things could make a difference.
The police kept saying the same details and I tried not to cry at the fact that someone's student was being rushed to the hospital. The gnawing returned. Another teacher, another principal, another school, another family was going through what we were going through. How many more times this year will schools and families go through this? It’s not about what the boys are doing as much as it’s about guns on the street. This question rings true: how many more young people have to get shot in America before something is done about guns? I have to leave the small office and the ID pictures on the screen. I couldn’t breathe.
Jamaries walked down the hall. I said hello. I appreciated all of the boys that today. All of the boys who show up to school against what everything else is telling them to do: be a rap star, be a basketball star, be a drug dealer, don't work for the man. And here was tall, lanky, smiling Jamaries in his all red sweatshirt and trackpants. I couldn’t help but smile back.
Can you come here? I asked, trying to sound light. You're not in trouble.
I closed the door. The Dean of Students, the counselor, and I must have looked a sight. Jamaries just took us in and asked, What's up?
Have you heard of anything going on this morning? the Dean asked.
Nope, he said.
Nothing around the neighborhood?
Nah. But you need to get Vello off the block.
We pounced: You saw Iveill? This morning? Where? When?
5 minutes ago. He's down the street. He's doing his own thing but he needs to get his ass to school, Jamaries said plainly. And we all exhaled. Jamaries has delivered news he didn't even know.
A wave of tears hit me again because the news Jamaries just delivered and because we still didn’t know who it is. I blinked them back not wanting to cry in front of Jamaries. I reminded myself to breathe.
As the minutes passed, deep in my gut I knew the boy who had been shot was not ours. After 30 minutes at our school the cops decided to go to two other schools to ask. We took their cellphone numbers and they took ours and we promised to keep in touch, like long time friends who had just had brunch.
The next morning the police returned with a picture of the boy and said they had confirmed his name and that he was enrolled at another school. He had never actually attended the school but he was suppose to. Instead he was shot on the street and his condition was still unknown to the police.
I wanted to explain it all away. The neighbors were wrong. The cops were wrong. The description was wrong. He wasn't ours. He was someone else's. Our boys were safe. Our boys would be here tomorrow. Our boys would walk across the stage.
I was wrong. My mantra was a coping mechanism but that isn't going to solve any problems and it isn't going to make it go away. They all have to be ours. All of the young boys, all of the victims. If something is going to change, we have to believe and feel that they are ours. All of them. We cannot ask if he was in a gang or in trouble with police. We cannot see his facebook page on the news and determine if he deserved to die in the street. To admit he is mine is painful and heartbreaking. But it also moves me to action against guns and to keep working to better serve young people. If we are going to live here and create a community and help each other succeed, all of the boys are ours.
I have taught in Chicago for almost 20 years, most of those at Austin Career Education Center. In all of that time working with students, they have taught me the transformative power of voice. I coach our spoken word team and try to spit bars half as well as the kids. When I'm not at work, I'm writing or running or taking care of my three boys and two dogs. - Anne Gottlieb