Sunday, September 11, 2011

This is Life or Death

I attended a student’s funeral last Friday. She was a tenth grader, a fifteen year old, and a young woman just beginning her life. She was murdered, shot in the head, while out after midnight in her neighborhood.

I believe it’s important to use this blog as a platform to share my experiences as an inner-city educator as we work to improve our school and our community. I wish I could share how exciting it has been to meet my students and the staff at our school. I’d love to say the first week went off without a hitch. But the truth is the first full week was rough. Grief counseling for students and helping to raise funds for a funeral was a higher priority than getting into classrooms and setting up my office.

Blogging doesn’t always have to be about what went right or went wrong in our schools. I think reading a principal or teacher blog can be an opportunity to see a glimpse of what a colleague in a different setting is experiencing. I want to share my experience at this funeral, but I wish I were a stronger writer, because I’m just not sure what words to use.

I wish I knew how to describe the feeling of watching my student’s teenage friends, classmates and neighbors walk slowly past her open coffin.

I also don’t know how to describe my emotions as I watched how heart wrenching it was for some students to confront their friend’s loss, and how it was even more difficult to watch other students expressions of absolute acceptance of the circumstances of her death. It never occurred to me that attending this funeral meant I would have to watch teenagers accept the death of another fifteen-year old girl as a normal everyday occurrence.

It’s impossible to describe the conflicting messages and the accompanying emotions we received at this funeral. The pastor attempted to lead attendees in a funeral service in which he framed that the deceased is in a better place. While he spoke and participants sang beautiful hymns and songs in honor of the deceased and God, members of the city gang unit watched the mourners carefully to ensure no trouble ensued. Local community organizers spoke directly to the gang members in attendance explicitly stating that gang affiliation and violence leads to more funerals like this one. And the deceased friends spoke lovingly and sadly about their lost friend, while proudly wearing gang symbols and speaking positively about happier times in their neighborhood. Each and every teen who spoke mentioned their other friend or cousin, or neighbor who had been shot, injured or killed. They spoke of these events in a matter of fact tone; in the same way I would talk about last nights’ meal or picking up my suit at the dry cleaners.

What a heartbreaking day. Partially because of all I heard and saw at the funeral, but mostly because I saw acceptance of this event on so many of my student’s faces. There wasn’t nearly enough outrage, anger or fear at the funeral, and frankly I searched for it. As a teacher and a principal, I can use outrage, anger, or fear to fuel the fire in our students. But acceptance is something else; and it’s far more difficult to engage students positively when they accept the violence in their midst as the norm.

Educating in the inner city is actually about life or death. When I was in high school, it didn’t matter if I had good or great teachers because I was headed for college regardless. I could make stupid mistakes and move past them with relatively benign consequences. It's just not the same for my students. A mistake, any mistake can lead to a funeral like the one I attended. 

I believe that you readers who take the time to read this blog and others are some of the best teachers and leaders across this country. I read about your passion in your blogs and tweets. I hear your enthusiasm and commitment at edcamps. We need you at my school and other city schools across this country. School is life or death for our kids and we need the best teachers and leaders this country has to offer. What we do is so hard, but we need you to join us to help city kids imagine a different future than the one I saw at that funeral.

When we returned to school last week, we held a town meeting with all the students to give them one last time to speak about their classmates’ death. We had hospice and grief counselors on hand to speak with individual students who needed support. And then when it was over, we returned to the business of school.

It’s taken me all weekend to write this post and consider my emotions from this event. I checked in on twitter and my Google reader and saw how excited so many teachers are to start the year at their schools. I saw frustrated comments about standardized testing and excited posts about flipped classrooms and web2.0 tools. My start of the year was very different from what I expected. But for me, these events only served to strengthen my resolve about the work we do in inner city schools. After the funeral, I went home and hugged my five-year old son and tried to put aside all that I experienced that day, while he told me about his day at kindergarten. Then I held my five-month old son in my arms, and tried to push aside the images of young mothers carrying their babies by the open casket at the funeral.

I’m in the right place doing the only job I want right now. School for me this week means getting into classrooms and talking about teaching and learning with my teachers. I also need to find a ninth grade girl a pair of glasses. She can’t see the board or the books and she’s purposefully getting kicked out of class because she doesn’t want her teachers to know she can’t see. I also need to figure out where the local Costco is in my new city so I can buy some food to store in my office. One young man keeps on coming to my office to talk, which I love, but he’s also looking for food, because he comes to school so hungry. And he’s not the only one who needs some healthy snack options to get through the day.

I went to a student’s funeral and it was terrible for so many reasons. But I still believe that school and hope can be synonyms if we’re purposeful in our actions. So I’m headed back to work in the morning. I can’t wait to see the kids.

This is cross posted over at Connected Principals 

CC Images:

…Hope…by DazT {bad contact, no biscuit}

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