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Connections to Tragedy

A teenager was killed in Oakland last week.  It made the news - as most homicide victims of that age do - but not for long.  It was one of seven murders in seven days, with the victims ranging in age from 15 to 84 years old.  Six out of the seven homicides happened in East Oakland, where I used to teach.

Hadari was a friend to several of my former students who I'm still in touch with.  He was also related to my 9-year old "Little Sister."  She told me this, adding that she had no feelings about it and didn't want to talk about it.  Ever.  I don't know the reason behind the killing, and I'm not sure it matters.  The consequences are the same.

I've been facing these situations since I started teaching 13 years ago and I still don't know how to deal with them in the best way.  For eight years, I taught in what is the most violent neighborhood in Oakland.  Most years, the majority of the kids in my class knew someone personally who had been murdered.  All of them knew of someone who had been killed.  Far too many of them had actually seen someone shot.  There were so many of these situations that I don't remember most of them, but  few stand out.

My second year of teaching, one of my third-graders saw her cousin (a teenager) shot in the face by a rival gang member outside their apartment complex.  She came to school the next day because there wasn't a better option.  She spent the whole day shaking uncontrollably and I had no idea what to do about it.  Of course, we didn't have a counselor at the school to help out.

About four years into teaching at that school, one of my students' dad was killed.  He was stabbed to death in his apartment.  The student, who didn't live with his dad, but visited him often, came to school and never mentioned one word about it.  I think there were two sentences about it in the newspaper.

In my second-to-last year teaching there, we were reading a story about a cowboy who owed some people money and got out of it by playing dead and scaring the debt collectors.  The reading program we had emphasized making connections — connecting real life events to what happened in the story.  One of my students told me that the connection he had was that his uncle was killed that weekend, in broad daylight, by someone trying to collect on a debt.  Not the sort of connection you want to hear in third grade.

I still have no idea what to do when a kid loses someone to a violent death.  It's easy to get complacent and start thinking of it as "normal," while of course, it's a tragedy every time.  I'd like to end this with some kind of call to action, but I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what can be done.  None.  At all.  Totally at a loss.

By the way, for those of you who know me and are worried about my safety, here are some disturbing statistics.

Oakland is 28% black and 34.5% white.
Homicide victims in Oakland are 77% black and 3.2% white.

There's a tiny bit of inequality here.  I'm benefiting from the inequality, which doesn't making it any less wrong.


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