In my second year of teaching, I had a notorious student we’ll call Israel. After the first day of class, we sat down and discussed appropriate expectations, whom he could work well with and we created a behavior plan. I remember thinking, I have a feeling that he’ll have a good year. For the most part, he did. While he had some issues with self-control, overall his behavior was fine. But that wasn’t the case for him all the time. Whenever I walked past the office, it seemed he was always sitting there. He got suspended multiple times. Knowing his challenges in and out of school, I tried to be there for him. Israel would stop by to crack jokes and discuss hip-hop. We both loved Mobb Deep and connected through music. I tried to check in with him even after he was no longer my student. Even after he graduated, he would frequently come back to visit our school. Israel said that he hated school, but I genuinely believed he loved it. School was one of the few areas of his life with structure, and I believe that’s what he craved. I remember seeing him on the playground one day and waving to me as he saw me leave.
[pullquote position="left"]The next time I would see his body was in a casket. As I walked into the wake, a former student wearing a shirt with Israel’s face on it embraced me. This was a student who had an extensive history of discipline issues, including cussing out multiple teachers, myself included. Later, I put my arm around him while he sobbed uncontrollably. Together, teachers and students talked, cried and searched for joy as we reminisced about memories of Israel. Perhaps we laughed and bonded so deeply because the pain was unfathomable.
'If you’re going to be a gangbanger, what do you expect?'
I remember when another student of mine was killed, people made statements like, “It’s unfortunate, but if you’re going to be a gangbanger, what do you expect?” It enrages me that Black and Brown kids are dehumanized—even in death. Israel himself once told me that a previous teacher had asked him, “Why do you even bother coming to school?” If I had heard that message as a kid, I would not want to go to school either. Many of Israel’s friends had dropped out of high school, as did Israel. (Although sadly, he was supposed to begin GED classes a few weeks before he died.) They felt that they really did not have a future—schools and educators had close off options to young people like them. By the time Israel was 14 years old, he was an orphan. He had dropped out of high school, spent time in juvenile hall and, according to many, was involved with selling drugs. When society turned its back on Israel, he turned his back on society. Yet in speaking with Israel’s friends, they acknowledged that they needed to go back to school and to make better choices. Several kids said that they were going to go back to school, in honor of Israel. They knew that their parents, teachers and friends were deeply concerned for them, even if they projected an appearance that indicated that they were ready to die. To imagine these students in this state several years ago would have been incomprehensible. While some of them struggled with attendance, completing work and behavior, they were able to get back on track. We (teachers, counselors, administrators) stayed on them. We called home. We mentored them and consoled them after school. We showed how much we cared and the students knew.
Support Our Young Men of Color
Despite our best efforts, many of them entered high school with little to no support. They became lost in the system. They did not receive counseling, mentoring or other interventions to help meet their academic and social-emotional needs. To go from an eighth-grade class with a teacher many of them had known for years to a large, anonymous high school was overwhelming. This is not to say that their high school teachers did not care. Quite the opposite. Of course these educators are deeply invested in their students. Rather, I am arguing that we need greater support systems for urban youth, particularly in the transition from eighth grade to high school. I do not have an immediate solution. I write this not only to honor Israel’s life, but to begin this dialogue. I can only start with a question: How do educators, parents and community leaders work together to provide social-emotional and academic support to students who many not have the economic or even familial supports of their more affluent peers? This question will not be answered overnight but we have to start the conversation now. Don’t let Israel’s death be for nothing. We need to focus on the thousands of Israels who are falling through the cracks.
Mike Friedberg has been a passionate youth advocate since 2007. He began working with students at a community center and has been a Chicago Public Schools teacher since 2012. He currently teaches seventh and eighth-grade science and has previously taught language arts. Mike has interests in working with English-language learners, culturally-relevant pedagogy, project-based learning, Holocaust ...