Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Rest in Peace

One of my students was brutally murdered this year. This is my letter to him.

Dearest Christopher,

It's taken me a while to be able to express the words that I wanted to share with you since February.

Your death came as a complete surprise, as you were a good student. 

Maybe because I didn’t think good students get murdered, especially not the way you were. 

Maybe it was so shocking because it shook up my preconceived notions.

I reacted worse to your death than I ever thought I would to a non-family member.  You were a student, yes, someone I knew fairly well and someone whom I nurtured for nearly four years. 

I guess I didn't realize the emotional connection that I do have to my students, and their lives, and the situations they come out of - or don't.

I guess I was surprised that, upon hearing of your shooting murder, it felt like a large boulder of pain had dropped on the center of my chest. Why did I break down sobbing uncontrollably, first in my car and then at my desk, unable to even form the horrific words to tell my husband on the phone what happened to you?

Why did I feel compelled to craft a passionate and somber letter to our city’s mayor, calling on him to find your killer and fight the increasing violence in our city? 

Why did I spend weeks kicking myself for not properly thanking you when, on the day before you were shot during a basketball game, you were the only student to show up and help me set up at our annual conference? 

And kicking myself some more for not sitting down with you more often, just talking, digging deeper, mentoring, and helping you? For being so busy with so many work tasks and the undulation of daily life that I missed something so big – this is the worst part of all –  that I didn’t even know you were possibly mixed up in something or someone bad? 

Why do I find myself so close to tears when writing this even now, nine months later? Why did I solicit money for your family, read your journal over and over, lead students to plan an anti-violence walk in your name and pack up all your items to send to your family?  Why did I struggle so hard to comfort other grieving students, because I was grieving so much myself?

What, pray tell, do you tell a teenager who is crying because their best friend was shot in the head several times for no reason, anyway? What kinds of cliche words could have possibly made them feel any better, or safer?

But enough of the why's. Your loss was huge for me. It still is. The fact is, I think of you often. Sometimes I can shake it, and push your face out of my mind. 

But you were my student, and I do take some responsibility for your life. You were violently killed for no apparent reason in the city I grew up in. And the city has moved on.

Your killer is still at large. 

I can’t believe this sick person still walks among us, maybe at the mall, at the grocery store, or maybe he is even one of those teenage boys that stare in the car next to me at stoplights.

Some days I dwell. I fear this unknown person. I wonder what he looks like.

I wonder what could have been of your young life.

I recall all the questions you had about college. How on track you were with your applications. How you and your mom stayed late and re-filled the financial aid form with me, twice, after the computer froze on you. So you’d have the money to go to college.

I wonder how your freshman year would be going. I wonder how you would have changed, blossomed, and matured -- as kids in poverty often do when they leave this town. 

I picture you a young man away from the darkness of this city and his pieced-together family, a young man turning into a burgeoning, educated person, surrounded by different college-minded friends with bright futures.

I think about how close you were (two months shy of graduation) to this reality.

But instead of walking across the graduation stage, you landed violently into a coffin.

Instead many people walked against violence in your name this summer under a hot sun, standing in the park you were killed in. Then they went home and moved on. 

Instead your face sits soul-less staring out from a t-shirt (red, the color of the pavement beneath your head when they found you) folded in the bottom of my dark dresser drawer. A t-shirt I have no reason to ever wear again.

Instead your killer gets to have a life. 

He gets the freedom to continue a violent life and kill, again, and again …. and again. 

Do you know who your killer is, Chris? Can you tell us please?

See, the thing is, he freely roams in my city where my other students roam, where my family and my friends and my nieces roam. He has ample opportunity to take away more young lives.

I often see our mayor at the gym, energetic, stretching after a run. The one with the goofy smile who went to private school his whole life and graduated from Harvard. The same mayor who never responded to my letter about you.

Sometimes I want to walk up to him and start screaming. 

I want to ask him: Why is our police force so inadequate that a teenager(s) can get away with murder in broad daylight in a park? Or, do the powers that be just not care about deaths like his on that side of town?

That is the real question.

That is the question that haunts me. Does it haunt you, Chris?

I think of my faith, and it’s perseverance in the face of some of the traumatic things I’ve been through the past few years. I know the taste of setbacks and hurt and disappointment. I know our lives don't always go as we would hope. I want to believe that God had a plan for you and that plan just couldn’t play out here on earth. 

And although I try to warn my students of the dangers of the world, I know I can’t prevent it all. I know I can’t save everyone. I know it's not up to me. All of our lives ebb and flow -- we are but stones tossed into the unpredicting swell of the river that is life. I do believe we all have a predetermined ending. I am not afraid of death itself. 

But what I don’t get is the capability of random hatred and violence in human beings. It’s something I struggle with.

Your death made me feel something different that I haven’t felt before. Your death made me want to change something. Your death shook up some of my ideas of “home.”

It made me want to rise up and fight something. 

Chris, your death has left a knot as blood red and angry as your t-shirt, down deep in my being.

Do you feel this too? Or are you at peace now?

Your memory made me remember the importance of my job. It made me remember that, even in the busy crazy times, I’ve got to sit down and really talk to my students about their lives.

It changed me as a person, as tragedy does.

I guess what I want to say is, even though people don’t talk about you much nine months later …

You are not forgotten.

I remember you.  

I’m sorry that I didn’t do more for you when you were alive. 

You deserved the chance to go to college and have a good life.

I’m sorry that they still haven’t found your killer. 

I care, even if they don’t.

And I’m so sorry for what happened to you.

Miss Melissa