We Chicagoans can get used to anything. We’ve been putting up with horrid weather, bad traffic, exorbitant taxes and crooked politicians for a long, long time. So I guess it’s no surprise that when we see headlines like “77 Shot in Weekend Violence, 14 Killed”, we just hoist it up on our big shoulders and go about our lives. That is, unless you know one of the 75+ people harmed by violence over the last five days. That probably makes it harder to handle. But chances are, you don’t. Unless you live in one of the distinct communities that boast a litany of shootings each week, mostly involving young, poor minorities, you probably feel removed, maybe even slightly smug, that the violence doesn't touch you. You may even have thoughts like “If that were my kid I’d never let that happen,” or “What’s wrong with their parents” or “That’s what they get for gangbanging.”
Perhaps thoughts like those are accurate. You can’t argue the fact that the majority—-not all, but most—-of the names on the list of the dead and wounded (if they even bother listing their names) were making poor choices that led to their injury or death. For some, the choice might have been simply that they were out on the streets of a dangerous area. For others, it might be that they were committing their own acts of violence. To me, those details don’t matter. What matters is that we are losing lives here, and every child lost to us is a loss to our entire society. And every time we shake our heads and write it off as somebody else’s issue, we lose a bit more.
When you scan the list of incidents after another violent weekend, you see things like “19 year old man” or “14 year old boy” or “28 year old woman”. Sometimes there are names, sometimes not. Names or not, these are faceless individuals, most likely in dangerous areas, possibly making bad choices, maybe in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that is all we know. The news reports don’t usually say things like this:
Luis hated school until he found poetry. After that, he couldn’t stop writing. He wrote countless poems, many about his violent life and the choices he was making. He was funny and candid and got along well with his teachers and peers. Luis was killed by gun violence at the age of 17.
Marley was good looking, happy, and funny. He made jokes all the time. The girls loved him. Though he could barely read he tried hard in school because he wanted to graduate to make his mother proud. It was hard, because he had health issues that kept him out of school a lot and had to be constantly monitored by doctors. He seemed to be doing better when he was shot to death at the age of 19. His classmates clung to each other and wept when they heard the news.
Miguel was a hyper, rambunctious freshman, silly and immature for his age. His teachers worried for him because of his gang involvement. He was killed the summer after his freshman year. His family is featured in the documentary The Interrupters, visiting him in the cemetery daily.
George wrote editorials for his high school newspaper. He was so smart that he graduated high school early. He opted to stay in Chicago for college because he didn’t want to leave his family and friends. He hadn’t yet graduated college when he was killed.
Aaron wasn’t that into school work, but he was friendly and funny and liked to play around with his teachers. His family moved to a better neighborhood hoping for a better life, but he still went back to the old neighborhood to see his friends and get into trouble. He was shot while running from police when he reached down to pull up his pants-—the officers thought he was going for a gun. He was 17.
Augie was a heavy set, short, silly kid. He was well liked by the staff and teachers at his school. His family sent him out of state to get him away from the streets, but he must have ended up back here, because I heard the other day that he was one of the 14 killed these last five days, shot to death while on his porch. He was in his early 20s.
I could go on. In my fifteen years of teaching I have lost many more students and former students to street violence. Maybe to everyone else they’re just names on a paper, kids acting stupid, products of bad parenting, somebody else’s issue. To me they were children with strengths and weaknesses, promises and potential. I weep when I read about another child lost to us, because I know those names on the list were real people, kids with hopes and fears, who were loved by their families and their friends and their teachers. I will never get used to the violence on our streets. I will never see it as somebody else’s problem. This is my problem. This is everyone's problem.
I keep the following poem on the wall of my classroom, and read it to my students frequently. It is a fitting memorial, and a cautionary tale, and I'm sure Luis would be proud that I was sharing it if he had lived.
I am strong and brave
I wonder if my braveness will get me killed.
I hear gunshots.
I see people dying, hurting, in pain.
I want it to stop.
I am scared, worried.
I pretend it is OK to do what I'm doing.
I feel nervous fear.
I touch my body to see if I'm still alive.
I worry I will get killed, and not see the people I love.
I cry at night just thinking.
I am scared, worried.
I understand I need to stop.
I say will I live to see 30?
I dream I can live a normal life.
I try to make it happen.
I hope I can live to see my child grow up, and not make the same mistakes I did.
I am strong and brave,
even though I feel different inside.
For as long as she can remember, Lisa Litberg has loved to write. Over the years she has amassed quite a collection of short stories and poetry. Free is her first novel. Ms. Litberg has been a high school teacher for nearly twenty years and helps empower her urban students with the power of the written word. Currently she is working on a short story compilation geared toward urban youth, as well as her second novel, which will answer her readers' questions about what happened to Free.