A boy from my school died. His name was David. He was sixteen, and I’m told, a notorious gang member. He was Edgar’s cousin. He was Alberto’s friend. David was run over by a car of opposing gang members, crushed up against a gate and beat to death. To my knowledge, no one has been charged with the crime. For my students, who seem to thrive on violence and consider movies or video games without killing to be “boring,” this was the first time I had seen many of them rattled.
Alberto was kept home for two days after the killing as his family is involved with the opposing gang and his mother feared retaliation. Edgar came to school, but was particularly quiet. Wednesday night was the wake, which both Edgar and Alberto attended. Thursday morning, they wanted to talk.
They were like kindergartners after the first day of school- excited and anxious to tell me every detail. Alberto told me he felt David’s body. He asked me why it was so cold. Edgar wanted to know why he had to wear black to the funeral. He told me he cried and his mom cried too. Alberto told me he prayed over his friend’s body.
I guessed they were trying to make sense of a situation that will never make sense. I wanted them to talk about it. I wanted them to write about it. I wanted to do whatever I could to help two eleven-year-olds understand why their friend died.
It is hard for me to imagine living with the reality of murder and the fear of death. I remember a boy in my tenth-grade class killed himself and our school was staffed with extra counselors for days. None of these children stayed home because of their grief. To my knowledge, none of them began seeing psychologists or school counselors—like we did—to deal with the death of their friend.
What is it like to live in their world? While I’m teaching the class about multiplication or the rotation of the earth, are some of my students distracted by fears of violence and death? What is it like for Alberto to come to school every day knowing his family has been threatened with retaliation for this killing? Is he thinking about that while we’re reading Frog and Toad?
What is it like at eleven to think that you might be killed? To wake up each day and wonder if there is going to be someone standing around a corner waiting for you, or a gun concealed behind a tinted car window. These kids can’t live their lives in fear. They don’t have the money or the resources to be that afraid.
Life has pretty much gone on in our school. A few weeks later, I overheard some seventh and eighth graders talking about David. They spoke like adults—adults that had just attended the funeral of an eighty-five-year-old, middle-class, suburban grandfather.
“He was so funny,” they said.
“He was really fun to hang out with,” said another.
Why wasn’t anyone asking why this happened? Why wasn’t anyone saying, “He was way too young.” “This was so senseless.” “How can we feel safe when this happened to someone we know?”
I was asking those questions. And I heard many of the teachers asking those questions—but not the kids. Maybe they knew the answers, or maybe they know there are none. This is their reality. This is their life. Maybe this is why in class they’re not paying attention.