Chicago teacher, Ann Mastrofsky, wrote the following in remembrance of a student who was killed in the course of the school year. Her love letter originally appeared here at EduShyster.
In May, someone opened the door to my classroom, stuck in his head and mooed. It was Darrell—charismatic, intractable, and one of my favorite students. He was seventeen years old and had earned only one high school credit; technically, he was a freshman. Darrell very rarely attended class and when he did, he spent most of his time socializing. He was barely literate, his math skills at the level of a third grader. But when I complimented his efforts, he beamed with pride. He did the best he could, and sometimes his best was outstanding. He earned the highest grade on my semester final.
I greeted him and he smiled warmly, an impish flash in his green eyes. He and I had bonded early; he liked his middle aged, white female teachers—teachers like me—the best. A huge youth, he towered over me and my neck hurt when I looked up at his broad face and dyed dreads.
I asked him what was up and he shrugged, smiling shyly. I told him to pull up his pants and take off his hat, both of which he did. I asked him if I’d see him in class later and he told me that I would. A few of his friends approached and I ducked back into my room, allowing him the privacy that adolescents and teachers both require. I knew only a very little about Darrell’s life outside of the classroom, but I knew enough to know that my ignorance was probably for the best.
As I expected, he never showed up in class that afternoon. Before the end of the school year, he was expelled.
And now he is dead at 17.
Darrell was shot to death on the West Side of Chicago on July 19. He died alone in the street, bleeding out from multiple gunshot wounds to the torso.
I think he sensed that time was running out. Shortly after we returned from Christmas break, Darrell’s personality seemed to change. When we saw him at all, he was morose, edgy, nervous. One day, I caught him in a quiet moment and asked him about his Christmas. He told me that he had been shot at over the break and narrowly avoided being struck. His worry was obvious. He told me that he thought about dying every single day. Yet he seemed resigned to the reality that he would probably die this way, and probably soon.
I did the only thing I could. I told him that I would do whatever I could for him, then emailed the school social worker, who had a caseload of over 100 students.
If Darrell had been born White and privileged, he would have been in the twelfth grade, ready to graduate from high school and move on to college. He would have been an entrepreneur, a politician. He was that charismatic, that magnetic. Peers gathered around him like steam over coffee. He had a sharp wit. He cracked up everyone he met, including his teachers. But because he was poor, lived in the hood, couldn’t read, and didn’t have the patience or inclination for formal education, Darrell used his talents in the ways that he could. Ways his teachers vainly protested, seeing the basic sweetness and goodness in this giant who seemed to us strangely vulnerable, despite his hulking frame and the $1000 in twenty dollar bills he regularly displayed, like a fan, when he couldn’t focus in class.
We, his teachers, knew how he got his money. We called his mother, expressing concern. But Darrell was caught up in something bigger than his block, more sinister than his gang and his guns and his drugs. He was stuck in the purgatory of hopeless, helpless poverty, whose victims know they’ll eventually end up in hell, but plan to enjoy the party while it lasts. It’s a different thing, teaching the living dead. It’s a different thing to understand that you will likely outlive your students, praying that they’ll be jailed, just so they’ll still be drawing breath. It’s a different thing to see your students rocking guns and bags of drugs on their Facebook pages, the ones you stalk after they die. It’s a different thing to call and call and call and call a parent, and never get an answer, or to hear the parent kicking the crap out of the kid as you listen on the other end, or to hear the parent tell you, as a parent told me earlier this year, that she had no idea where her child even was—a young man in a similar situation to Darrell. Not for that moment or that hour, but for six months.
It’s a different thing when your own peers don’t get why you teach students like these, why you love their infectious enthusiasm, their humor, their undying spirits, the respect they show you when you treat them like human beings.
Darrell lived a short, furious, and I hope, frequently happy life. I hope that he has found some peace, now that his murder, the one that he predicted and anticipated, has happened.
His is not the first death I have encountered as a teacher, and it will not be the last. And that reality makes me sick.
Ann Mastrofsky is the pseudonym of a Chicago teacher who has taught high school on the South and West Sides of the city for seven years. She plans to incorporate her student Darrell’s story into her lessons this year.