on the death of my former students

i recently found out that another of my former students has passed away.  i taught for 8 years at locke high school in south los angeles.  at this point, 4 of my former students are dead…that i know of.   all young men.  all dead via guns.  2 african-americans.  2 latinos.  3 shot by another person.  1 shot from an accidental self inflicted gunshot.

i am saddened by their passing, all too soon and all without a fair shake in life, but sadly i am also not too surprised. unfortunately, all were already headed down a dangerous path by the time i met them.  not only because of the poverty they grew up in.  not only because of the violent neighborhood in which they lived.  not only because of an absence of positive male role models in their lives.  by 9th grade they were already checking out of school emotionally. sometimes i could get through to them but more often my words and actions as a teacher couldn’t reach them.  trust for adults had been broken long before.  they needed support and love in a much more profound way, to not only reach them but to heal them of their deep wounds.

i remember having one on one conversations with each of them.  too often for their behavior.

E was a goofy kid that put a smile on my face.  he struggled with reading.  he would be disruptive, often when he wanted to impress those around him.  he would talk about gangs to seem cool.  but he was still just a sweet child.  he began to run with gangs.  he was shot in the face on the street.

R was an angry student,  but he was creative and a leader amongst friends.  he still remembered the hurt from an experience with an elementary teacher who made him stand in a corner for misbehaving.  he seemed to have written off school from back then.  from my understanding he was shot in the back.

U was another angry student, quiet and tough.  however, he was fiercely loyal to those he loved and much more intelligent then he let on.  he was walking his younger brother to school when he was shot in the chest.

J, this is the student that i had most recently and the one who broke my heart even when he was alive.  so bright, so charismatic.  we had deep talks one on one about all manner of existential questions.  yet when he came to class, he was physically present but often somewhere else. too often he would come to class under the influence of some substance.  sometimes he would just put his head down and refuse to do anything.  i called home multiple times.  his mother was at her wits end with her two adolescent boys.  they would not listen to her even with the threat of the law getting involved.  their father was in prison and unavailable.  this is the student that really compelled me in my private thoughts to think about how young people needed so much more than what i could offer them in the classroom.   this is the student that was an impetus for me changing careers to be a youth pastor: to be intentional, not only to help a young person academically but to support them spiritually.

not that i have gotten there but that is my hope.  this is also not to say that a teacher could not do these things, in fact i still respect anyone in the profession so much for consistently doing the hard work of love.  but i had to acknowledge my limits and where to focus my life.  the lives and deaths of my students are a reminder to me that it is not enough to pass on knowledge but to make time to listen to people and to walk with them.  God, please raise up more people to commit themselves to the hard work of loving like your Son did.  Make me one such person.

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.'” – Matthew 9:36-38


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