On August 12th at 11:30pm, a 17-year-old African American boy was riding his bike on 92nd and Dobson when a silver car pulled up and fired shots at his chest. He was rushed to the ER, and was pronounced dead just after midnight. The police report stated that this boy was a documented gang member, whatever that means.
On August 13th, my husband’s and my 3rd year anniversary, I checked the news and discovered that my former student, Tay-Tay, was that documented gang member, that 17-year old bike-rider, that boy who was shot in the chest and who was now dead. I discovered this, and all the color drained from my face.
I knew there were shootings in Chicago all the time, and I had even known of kids at my school that have died, and Mike Brown was just fatally shot by a police officer only a few days earlier. All of these facts made me upset, made me outraged, made me sad.
But I don’t know. Maybe it was because I knew Tay well. Maybe it was because I recommended him for my AP Lang class and I was looking forward to teaching him next year. Maybe it was because he came late everyday to my first period class his Freshman year but still aced all of the exams. Maybe it was because of the contrast between celebrating a marriage and celebrating a life that was taken too early.
But this, this rocked me.
I won’t go into too many details about Tay-Tay, one, because he was in fact a gang member, and pretty high up on the totem pole too, and I want to respect his family’s privacy. And two, because I have other things to discuss.
But I will say a few words to explain, and a few words to commemorate.
So, many of the kids out here, they are sort of forced into the gang-banging lifestyle. Yes, it’s true that they ultimately make their own choices, but joining a gang is a survival tactic in some cases. It’s part of life here, and honestly, you don’t have to do much to be affiliated with a gang. You just have to stay on a certain block. Where you live determines what gang you’re with. It’s really that simple sometimes. And because you’re automatically affiliated with a gang, it’s easy for you to get caught up in the activity of the gang and the hierarchy of it. It’s like a snowball effect. Or at least it can be.
I have reason to believe that Tay-Tay was a higher-up in the gang. He didn’t advertise it at school, but he didn’t need to. The kids that talk the most about it are usually affiliated, but not too involved. The ones who don’t talk, don’t talk because they are involved, and sometimes, heavily so. Tay didn’t talk about it. He was so intelligent and so talented, and he could play one hell of a game of basketball. He was cute, funny, and he had the best smile out there. He was one hundred percent a natural-born leader. I loved him like I love all of my kiddos. Yes, he made some silly choices, he had a little ‘tude some days, and his ability to show up late to class and out-test the ones who came on time drove me absolutely insane!– but I loved that kid. I really did. And now he’s dead.
I can’t help but connect Tay’s death to the world around me right now. People everywhere are getting up in arms about so many issues, from Christian genocide in Iraq, to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and whether or not to dump the ice or donate, to Michael Brown’s brutal shooting by a Caucasian police officer in Ferguson, to the journalist James Foley’s ugly and filmed beheading, and I can’t help but wonder if they are all somehow related.
And the funny thing is, as many times as I’ve seen people speak out to voice an opinion or simply to raise awareness, I’ve seen just as many twitter feeds and Facebook posts and even news quotes that bash the ALS Challenge, or that question the facts of Mike Brown’s case, or that deny the global relevance of any of the issues mentioned previously. We insist that one outrage is more outrageous than the other, and that the cause of another’s choice isn’t worth caring for as much as our cause is.
But even though we are quick the point the finger, and quick to reference another tragedy, the truth of the matter is, we are really just scared of our own selfishness. Scared that we actually might care about our own lives more than we care about the lives of those people who have suffered greater than we ever have.
When I found out Tay was killed, I was celebrating my anniversary. I wanted to have fun, to laugh, and to be romantic with my husband. But when I thought about him bleeding on the ground, scraped up from his fall off the bike, a bullet buried in his chest, in the same spot where he had buried into my heart, I felt utterly guilty for being alive. And somehow, I think that maybe we all feel that way when we look at a tragedy.
When someone with ALS’s body slowly shuts down while their brain remains the same, when a black man can’t walk on the street without fear that the law enforcement might take his life, when a pregnant Muslim encounters Jesus and is executed by her own government, and when a 17-year-old boy is gunned down while riding his bicycle home from a friend’s house, we are stunned with the guilt of still being alive.
So we rage, and point fingers at those who aren’t raging enough, or raging in the wrong way. We take personally what doesn’t usually effect us personally, and we feel better about ourselves…. for a little while.
Maybe this is a first world problem. Or maybe it’s just the byproduct of being raised in a middle-class, white, suburban family and being launched into a violence-riddled, urban neighborhood where my lack of color now is the minority.
Yes, maybe it’s my white-guilt… or my privileged-guilt.
But whatever it is, it’s the same reason I broke down last night after shots were fired a block away from us and we heard the shooter– the murderer of human life– running through the empty lot next to our house. All I could think about was Tay-Tay and the hand of God that protected me in this neighborhood. I sobbed into the humid air and demanded to know why God hadn’t protected him, and whoever else might have died tonight.
We can’t help what race we are. I know. We can’t help what hereditary disease we contract or don’t contract. We can’t help where we were born, or how we were raised, or how much money our parents had, or whether or not our government is tyrannical or just. I know this. But I still think it’s unfair that we haven’t found a cure for ALS, that we haven’t found a cure for the plagues of racism, a cure for religious discrimination, a cure for white-guilt. I think it’s unfair that Tay-Tay, the boy with the bright smile and the big potential, had his life cut short while I’m still here breathing and teaching the class that he’s still on the roster for.
And I think I’m more upset about Tay than I am about Ferguson, or about Christian beheadings, or about ice buckets. I think my outrage at his death has caused more genuine and heart-felt tears than anything in the news ever could cause. And maybe that’s cold of me to admit, but it’s true. I felt the loss of his life on a personal level.
I knew Tay. He taught me to value my students, even if they drive me crazy. He taught me to value my life, because it can be cut short. He taught me that sometimes the greatest injustices are the ones that aren’t publicized or argued or even remembered. He taught me all of this, not during his life, but he taught me this through his death.
So I guess what I’m saying is, we need to find out what all of this death and disease and destruction can teach us–what ALS, Mike Brown, and James Foley can teach us. And when we find out, we need to learn that lesson well and never forget it. We need to let it change us. Don’t get into a contest about who can be the most upset or who can donate the most money, and don’t let the privilege of being alive make you feel guilty when you witness those that aren’t.
Instead, value life–all life, especially your own. Because it is a gift.
This past Saturday, I looked over the body of my former student.
I didn’t have Tay-Tay in my class his Sophomore year, although he should have been in Honors English. But he would always pass by my classroom and give me a big ol’ smile, playfully asking, “you miss me Ms. Flo?”
Yes, I miss you Tay. I will always miss you because you taught me lessons I needed to learn. You taught me that I am selfish, and that I will always care about the things that directly effect me more than I will care about the things that don’t.
I miss you. And I think that’s the reason why your death hurts the most. Because your death meant a loss for me.
It was personal.