A bitter pill

Several years ago, I returned to Baltimore for the funeral of one of the kids I coached in basketball. He was stabbed to death in an altercation at a gas station. I almost wrote a piece about my feelings, but never did.

Last week, I learned that a student I taught was found shot to death on the street. I don’t know anything more about what happened. There’s no news story about it. If you know the intro to the track Straight Outta Compton…well, almost 30 years later, not much has changed.

This kid was one of the kids who defined my experience as a teacher. He was funny as hell, complex, brilliant, stubborn, inquisitive, and energetic. In one particularly out-of-control class period, he got carried away and was standing on his desk ring-leading the chaos. Floundering to figure out how to regain some semblance of control, I play-lunged at him, and he quickly scrambled back down, saying something probably like “Mr. Johnson ain’t playing”. I earned a little cred, the wrong way. (Not my proudest moment as a teacher, but I never claimed to have been great at the job.)

He and I didn’t always get along, but we also had moments of the two years I taught him where I think I really reached him. On my last day with the students, I let them write reflections about their time with me, if they wanted to. Each one was almost shockingly introspective and grateful for what I had at least tried to accomplish. But this kid’s was hands-down the most heartfelt. That day may have been the last time I saw him, and I’m presuming our lives diverged significantly from that point.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to get enough information to make it back to pay my respects and just express my support to his family and any of his classmates that would have come. But it’s also a reminder of how marginal I am in that world, where media, justice, economics, and just about everything else are entirely different than in the bourgeois world I inhabit. Premature death is so common in Baltimore that young people talk about how they want to be memorialized on a t-shirt in the same way that I might think about a living will.

When I returned to Baltimore for that last funeral, it hit me in the gut that, in a sense that is almost too literal for comfort, I helicopter in and out out of that world at will. But my former students, that precarious world is their default, and they venture out only with incredible difficulty, as the forces of concentrated poverty constantly pull them back in. The people who stay in teaching in places like Baltimore choose to be permanent residents of that world, and a bridge to other worlds. I’m forever in awe of those who stay in the career.

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