Guilt by Association

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The media's over-simplified, hyperbolic coverage of school violence has led to a grotesquely skewed image of city kids, argues one of their teachers.

'How does it feel to teach in such a volatile neighborhood?" The Chicago Tribune reporter flips a page on his yellow legal pad and readies a pen to record my comments, seemingly unaware of the loaded nature of his initial question. He is but one of a flock of media-types who have descended like vultures on the elementary school in which I teach following the tragic shooting deaths of two area teenagers. One of the students in my reading class, a 12-year-old, has been arrested for his possible involvement in the murders. The police say he pulled the trigger.

Though I only taught him for one semester and for just a period a day, I know the kid pretty well. I was one of several teachers who had sensed early in the year that he needed extra attention, and we'd tried to give it to him. I'd counseled him on a regular basis, allowed him to linger in my room after school to talk or listen to music, and called or visited him at home a few times. I definitely saw him as a kid who was struggling in a lot of ways, but that's true of many kids his age. It's hard for me to believe that he committed this crime.

I tell the reporter I think he's asking the wrong question. I try to redirect the interview several times. But after a few minutes, I realize that it doesn't really matter what I say. The guy doesn't hear me. In his head, the story has already been written: Kid grows up in violent neighborhood, lacks family support, looks to gang for acceptance, teachers try to "save" him but fail, and now he's a killer. Never mind that the kid hasn't even been tried yet, much less convicted. Never mind that there are other possible scenarios in the case that have yet to be investigated. Never mind other equally important questions, such as where the gun came from. The story will run on the front page of the next day's Tribune, complete with photos and a fully exploitative headline, and readers across the city will dutifully gasp or shake their heads and ask what's wrong with today's youth.

Again, this strikes me as the wrong question. But I understand why people ask it. Violence—especially gang-related violence—is a frightening and undeniable reality in many Chicago neighborhoods. Whenever I ask my students to name the biggest problem in their community, the gang presence invariably tops the list. But they can just as easily cite things they appreciate and even cherish about where they live. They are proud of their neighborhoods. And they certainly don't see themselves as the kind of amoral urban hellions that populate "realistic" films like Kids and 187.

The media's over-simplified, hyperbolic coverage of incidents like the one reportedly involving my student has led to a grotesquely skewed image of city kids—one that has been elevated in recent years almost to the status of conventional wisdom. I hear it echoed all the time. When I'm at a meeting or social gathering and tell people that I'm a teacher of 7th and 8th graders at a South Side public school, the questions that follow are predictably gloomy: Do you feel safe? Are they violent? Do they bring guns? Are they in gangs?

"I admire you," a twenty-something real estate agent once told me. "It must be tough working with kids like that."

"Like what?" I asked.

"Well, you know," the woman explained. "Inner-city kids. I mean, come on, I read the newspaper. I've seen Dangerous Minds."

The week after the murders, I'm perched on a stool in front of my reading class, listening as Danny plods through the middle section of a rather obtuse short story. I try to read ahead of him a few paragraphs. The past several days have been such a blur that I've had neither the time nor the inclination to prepare for my classes. I have no idea how this particular story ends.

What's worse, I feel guilty because I still haven't talked with these kids at any length about what happened, about why the chair directly in front of me sits empty. In the days following the shootings, the faculty had tried its collective best to help students deal with the tragedy, though every action we took seemed somehow weak or mistimed. The principal had addressed all the upper-graders at an assembly, spelling out the details of the incident and squashing some rumors. Father Bruce Wellems, a neighborhood priest whom the kids trust and respect, had come in to speak to them as well. One of our teachers organized a collection for the families of the two victims, who had attended a nearby school, and the board of education sent in its crisis-intervention team. It wasn't as if we hadn't responded.

Though I don't see myself as the kind of teacher who pretends to have all the answers, this is one time that I wish I did.

Still, I felt that I should be doing more. With my reading group, especially, it had pretty much been business as usual. I hadn't known what to say to them. When I had asked the kids once if any of them wanted to talk about the shootings, we all sat in silence for a good two minutes. "It's OK if you just want to sit and think about it," I told them, stating the obvious but finding no other words at my disposal. Seeing that nobody felt comfortable about speaking up, I decided to try a less-intrusive approach. "How many of you have felt scared or worried this week because of what happened?" A couple kids raised their hands. Then a few more. Gradually, almost every hand in the room crept up, including mine. It may not have been much, but it was something. At least they could see that they were not alone. But since that day, little more has been said. Maybe the kids just want to get on with living.

I take over for Danny and read the last few pages of the short story aloud to the class. As I reach the final paragraph, I shift my voice to a tone intended to suggest profound insight, but inside I'm still trying to figure out what in the hell the story is about. I don't get it. Like the kids, I can easily recall the plot or name the protagonist, but I'm stuck on the same question that often baffles them. What is the theme, the meaning? What is the point of it all?

A teacher, my students are quick to point out, is supposed to know these things. And maybe that's my biggest frustration in this whole mess. Though I don't see myself as the kind of teacher who pretends to have all the answers, this is one time that I wish I did. I want to have words that will comfort the kids. I want to be able to say that everything is going to be OK. I want to understand the big picture, to find the lesson in it all, to be able to map out with some sense of certainty where we go from here. But I can't. I can't because I just don't know.

The next day, I inform my reading students that I'll be going to the juvenile detention center over the weekend to visit their former classmate. It's his 13th birthday, and we agree that he must be feeling pretty lonely. One of the kids wants to know when he'll be getting out. Not anytime soon, I say. The students spend the period making him a giant birthday card, and a few write individual letters. As they work, I look around at their faces and see none of the heartless, predatory teens who, according to much of what is offered up by the mainstream media, are taking over our cities. Instead, I see pain and hope, confusion and wonder, beauty and, most of all, possibility. I see kids.

On a Friday afternoon a month later, I'm heading to my car. It's been a long week, but things have thankfully settled down—for better or for worse—into something resembling a normal routine. Across the parking lot, I see the mother of one of my students walking briskly down the sidewalk, hand in hand with her youngest child. She waves me over.

"You didn't hear it from me," she says, "but it looks like the retaliation has started. A kid just got killed right over there on 45th Street." Sure enough, I find out a few minutes later, a 17-year-old who used to attend our school is dead, shot in the head in a drive-by. Some say it is a retaliatory killing connected to the earlier murders, but others aren't sure. Either way, I feel my stomach sink. I know the coming week will bring another period of mourning for my students, and while the emotions this time may surface more freely, I have a sick feeling that the answers I'm hoping for will continue to escape our grasp.

Later that evening, about 60 guys, most of them alumni of our school, many of them gang members, gather in the street at the site of the murder. Father Bruce is there too, as always, to do what he can. As he raises his voice against the chill of the March night with the words, "Our Father, who art in heaven...," the guys all drop to their knees on the cold asphalt and pray with him. Try, if you can, to picture that. I doubt you'll see it in the paper.

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