A Chicago Teacher's Struggle to Get Kids to College in a Culture of Violence and Fear

Not so long ago, I learned that one of my former students, a fun-loving, academically strong kid who is now in high school, had a handgun stashed underneath his clothes in his dresser drawer. Some boys in the neighborhood had threatened to jump him, and the other day they threw bottles at him and his friends. He felt he needed protection. But the gun made him nervous. What if my mother finds it? What if it accidentally goes off in my house? What would happen to me if I actually used it on someone, killed someone? I’m told now through one of his friends that the gun is gone. It wasn’t my place to ask for more details than that. As the alumni manager of a small K-8 charter school in Chicago, I must practice the delicate art of pushing my former students to talk just so, and not too much. Most nights, all I can do is close my eyes and pray for these Black and Latino kids, trusting the all-seeing eye to protect them from other kids who also bury their pistols beneath boxers and briefs, kids who aren’t as afraid to point and shoot. Less than two weeks ago, Lee McCullum Jr., 22, was shot in the head in the West Pullman community. I wouldn’t know him by name except that he was the troubled kid turned honors student/prom king/college-bound Fenger Academy High School student featured in the 2014 CNN series, Chicagoland. Fenger’s former principal Liz Dozier did all she could to help McCullum and hundreds of other students escape the dangerous city streets long enough to get a college education and maybe return to give back to the community. McCullum was accepted to Talladega College, Alabama’s oldest private historically Black college, but he never made it there. Struggling with homelessness and a checkered past, he survived one shooting shortly after graduation, but not the second. I extended my condolences to Dozier, who now runs  Chicago Beyond, because she has had to bury more students than she cares to count. I tried unsuccessfully to remove the knot in my throat. One of my kids had a gun in his drawer, I thought. He had a gun in his drawer. I spent way too much time last week on McCullum’s girlfriend’s Facebook page. You see, Tiara Parks, 23, was shot in the head and died just a week earlier than McCullum in the Roseland community. She was a college graduate with a toddler son. She was hanging out with McCullum near some 20 other young people when shots rang out. I’m grieving the loss of the two lovebirds. A romance that has ended on the street in cold blood, leaving a young son without a mother and a baby daughter without a father. A legacy of pain to be felt for many years to come. In my small Surge fellowship cohort of 13, three educators have lost students this school year. One principal recently lost a chronically-ill 14-year-old girl who was too sick to afford insurance; the school ran a crowdfunding page to raise funds for her burial, and her mother donated her organs to other children in need. Another teacher in my cohort lost his favorite student, 15-year-old De’Kayla Dansberry, who was stabbed in the chest two weekends ago by a seventh-grade girl whose mother allegedly gave her a switchblade to use in the fight. When I saw the report on the news, I instantly wondered what school she attended and whether I knew her teachers. Losing a student, even someone else’s student, is like a death in the family, a relative once or twice removed. The third fellow in my cohort had to attend the funeral of her 19-year-old former student, Juan Gonzalez, who was trying to deposit his paycheck at an ATM when he was gunned down in an attempted robbery. He worked at a local grocery store to help pay his older sister’s college tuition and to save money for his own college education. Kids with guns in drawers, knives in pockets, and blood on their hands. This is not natural. Sadly, in certain neighborhoods, it has become normal. I’m relieved that my former student got rid of his gun. Like Liz Dozier with Lee McCullum, I would do anything I could to help him succeed. He has my cell number and can call me anytime. In fact, I just spoke with him and he tells me he’s good: He’s focused on high school graduation, earning scholarship-worthy grades, and going away to college. I just pray that a bullet—his or someone else’s—won’t stop him from achieving his dreams.
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

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