It’s been a long and challenging week. I have not been able to erase the memory of a former student from my mind. I keep seeing his round brooding face as he sat in my class. And now he’s dead. He was one of three young men found shot to death in a car. One of the other young men is also a former student. Though I did not teach him, I did have both of his younger brothers. My former student also has a younger brother who is a student in our school now.
My student’s death is troubling because he predicted it. Like too many young Black males he thought death at an early age was inevitable. So, he didn’t think about his future; He didn’t plan for one. When he was in 7th grade, I asked the students to write an essay where they saw themselves in 10 years.
“You’ll be in your early 20s. Will you still be in school? Will you have a job? Will you be married? What will you be doing?” I like to ask students to begin thinking about their future. And I tell them it’s ok if they aren’t sure or don’t know. I also explain that as time goes on they may change their minds.
My student raised his hand. I acknowledged him.
“I don’t want to do this assignment,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“No disrespect, but I don’t think I’ll live that long.” There was no bitterness or anger in his voice. It was just matter of fact.
His words stilled me. I didn’t push him to complete the assignment. Instead I talked to him about why he didn’t think he’d live that long. I learned that tragedy had been visited upon his family. He had an older brother to die tragically and another in jail for murder. These two brothers would show up in his writing, and I encouraged him to write about it. To get it out. He seemed open to the idea, but he never wrote in any depth.
At the time, I was teaching writing twice a week to students in grades 5th through 8th. I had multiple classes at each grade level totaling nine classes. So, I had close to 300 hundred students. Though we talked a few times, the student and I did not form a close bond. As is typical of teenagers, we actually locked horns on occasion, but nothing major. Adolescents challenging adults is par for the course.
He graduated and went on to the neighborhood high school, and I would see him standing around with a group of guys from time to time. I’d blow and they’d wave and I kept going. Unlike other students who graduated, he never came back to visit.
This week, I was looking for a letter of recommendation for a student that I had written when I ran across an essay my deceased student had written in 8th grade. I was trying to get students to enter a contest in which they wrote about barriers they faced in their lives. I opened up his essay and read it. It was about missing his brothers and not being able to trust anyone. I had made comments on it for his revision, but he never did the second draft nor did we talk about it. It was spring and the only thing on the minds of the 8th graders was graduation.
What I wrestle with his how do you give hope to the hopeless? I wonder did I do enough? What else could I have done when this type of thinking is so common among young Black men? If they don’t think they’re going to die, then they think they’ll end up in jail. So they live a life of urgency—of right now.
There are people whose lives are tragically cut short taking their dreams with them. But what do you say to a person who doesn’t dream? I don’t know. I have experienced the death of a student, and it never gets easier. Looking down into a casket of a young person gone before they’ve lived is one of a teacher’s worst nightmares.
He predicted he wouldn’t see his 20s. And now he’s dead at 18. He thought Death would come knocking? Was it a premonition or a self-full-filling prophecy? Did he ignore the knocking or throw the door open in defiance? Questions that have no answers. Questions that no longer matter for him. Until we find some answers, others will follow.
My student did not find peace in life; I can only pray that he finds peace on the other side.