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 your 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 Growing Good Schools

CC Images:

Angel of Grief/Weeping Angel by elycefeliz

Crimes of Passion by Walt Jabasco

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

 

 

13 Comments

  1. Jennifer Dahl said:

    As a fellow urban educator I share many of your challenges though in an elementary classroom. I am so sad to hear that your year got off to a very unexpected start. Please continue sharing your story.

    A small piece of assistance: Sears, Walmart and St Vincents Charities provide inexpensive glasses and optometrist services. http://www.stvincentcharity.com/programs-services/diagnostics-clinics/lions-eye-clinic.aspx

    Keep your head up high and keep fighting the good fight! You can, and will, make a difference in the lives of your students.

    September 12, 2011
    • Eric Juli said:

      Jennifer,

      Thanks for the kind words and for the inexpensive glasses link. I appreciate the help.

      Eric

      September 13, 2011
  2. Shawn said:

    May you have strength, wisdom, and peace as you make a difference-changing the world- one person at a time. May God provide.

    Shawn

    September 12, 2011
  3. Jeff Herzberg said:

    Your voice, which speaks for a great number of students and educators, is very well spoken! It is heartbreaking to think that our schools are being judged on standardized test scores when the truth is that there are so many more things that are important. Does the hungry young man need more testing or does he need three square meals a day? Does the girl with a need for glasses need more bubbles to fill in…wait, she can’t see them?? What do our children need?

    After reading Kozol’s book, Savage Inequalities, about 15 years ago I have been convinced that those of us who work in rural America could really help with some of the issues of urban education. We, rural America, have schools buildings built for hundreds more students but due to declining enrollment are sitting empty, we have certified teachers in every area, our graduation rates are bad if they’re not 95%, we have access to technology tools, and connections to our community that share a belief that all students should succeed. It is not that we’re better at education that urban areas but the system may be more aligned with success than failure.

    What if we started a program to connect urban youth to our rural communities to attend school and get their high school diploma and a strong connection to post-secondary programs that could help change the future of them individually but also their future families? The students could be 1) placed in homes with host families like our foreign exchange student programs…great programs but we have need right here in America!, 2) placed in group homes with multiple kids and led by young couples in a way like they do at Boys Town or other successful group programs, or 3) families could be sponsored to come to rural America and find jobs or job training and helped support by local service clubs, churches, etc…. I have shared my idea with many people but so far it has been a bust…I have specifically spoken to a high school in Chicago about this and the people appeared to have interest but we couldn’t get it off the ground.

    I’m convinced that the complex system problem of urban education will not be solved by hiring a new CEO/Supt (the research behind supt turnover is very clear on the negative impact on student achievement), throwing more money at it…we’ve been doing this for years, having kids go longer days (more of the same), or more caring people like yourself working towards solving the problems that you can’t begin to get to the root of…not because you don’t want to or that you’re not passionate enough but because it is too complex. I know that one person can make a difference and I applaud your efforts but graduation rates of 28% in Detroit or 48% in Chicago should be treated as criminal acts. If a system like this was in place in rural America people would go to jail and I don’t know why we don’t treat urban education the same way…

    What do you think? When can we start?

    September 12, 2011
    • Eric Juli said:

      Jeff,

      I think there are far more parallels between urban and rural education than we might thing at first glance. I also think we all get caught up in our own set of problems and it’s difficult to look beyond our experiences to see how others might help. I don’t know where in the world you are, but if you’re near Cleveland, I’m more than willing to give your ideas a try.

      Thanks for your response to this post,

      Eric

      September 13, 2011
  4. @8Amber8 said:

    Touching. Tragic. 🙁

    September 12, 2011
  5. Cyrus Carter said:

    Thank you for expressing your conundrum so movingly. I work at a private school in Istanbul, Turkey and can say that your statements apply in varying degrees the world. Leadership, teaching and guidance in public schools requires the best of what humanity can offer. As the Turkish expression says “May it go easily”.

    September 12, 2011
    • Eric Juli said:

      Thanks Cyrus,

      It’s amazing that my experience in Cleveland, Ohio, USA has relevance to your experiences in Istanbul. As sad as this tragedy is, I feel fortunate to be able to share with you, from the other side of the world. Thanks so much for commenting.

      Eric

      September 13, 2011
  6. Innovations in Online Education, Inc. said:

    So sad to hear this real life story…..and the numbness (acceptance) that accompanies it….perhaps it is the worst part because it signifies that the status quo remains in place, nothing will change.

    What will it take for young people to say this is not the way it should be, this is not what I want, I will not be a participant (gangs)?What is the environment that needs to be created for a new culture to grow and take hold? How can a community move as one in that direction?

    Whether it is a car accident, sickness, or violence, what a shame when a young person life is cut short. What a waste of a potential life. And how heart breaking for the family and community.

    Sincerest sympathy to family, friends and community.

    Fred De Sena

    September 12, 2011
    • Eric Juli said:

      Fred,

      You ask tough questions. I don’t know the answers for sure, but I have always believed the answers are in building amazing schools in city communities. When school is as exciting as the latest app, and kids would rather be connecting to their world with their teachers and classmates, and not at home or out on the street, then we’re on the right track.

      Thanks for the comment,

      Eric

      September 13, 2011
  7. Randy Seabrook said:

    Know that you are one of many who are pulling them back from the brink one mind , one heart, one stomach at a time. You are in the right place- feeling the right things – and showing your students a new way. Hug your family tight and find strength in their love and the comfort of your own home. That anchor will hold you steady as you stand against the hurricane of violence, apathy, racism, and despair that is enveloping the young people in your care. You are not alone. I and hundreds of other urban educators stand with you. You are blessed in the midst of the storm. God bless you and strengthen you.

    September 12, 2011
    • Eric Juli said:

      Randy,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Eric

      September 13, 2011
  8. Your observation in the funeral made me think about the youth’s mindset today. I would like to partially attribute the passive acceptance they have to the culture that we have today.

    They see, hear and read about incidents like this all the time from different parts of the region, so they may have prematurely developed a weary outlook in life (“it happens all the time, so it’s bound to happen here, too”). Rarely do they see the perpetrators being brought to justice, which disheartens them more.

    Plus, our teen’s social connections have grown a tad shallower, what with Facebook and Twitter replacing good ole human interactions. Unfortunately, the more connections they grow online, the more they become isolated from their real-life community. Hence, it’s hard for them to feel and act intensely for someone they may not know too well.

    In any case, I’m glad to hear you doing everything you can to pull the school together. This is a simply heartbreaking way to start the year, and I can only pray things turn out better soon.

    My sincerest condolences to the young woman’s family and friends.

    Sacha

    September 18, 2011

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