Monday, June 11, 2012

Bullets and Names

Joseph Briggs' name is all over the news today. But nobody knew his name when he was alive. To our society, a poor youth's name is only worth knowing when they are about to be put in the ground.

They say “Bullets don’t have no names” cause they take "innocent" lives. But they do. They're made to have the names of vibrant, beautiful black and brown children on them. When was the last time you saw a bullet with a Pritzker or Crown’s name on it?

The worst part is that our kids sense that their names’ are on them. They walk outside to go to school or sit on the porch and they know that bullet may be out there waiting for them. And they often feel resigned to the unavoidable nature of it. And why should they waste time and energy in class on the play tools of the elite? If Winnetka was a “shooting gallery” would Tim Cawley (CAO of Chicago Public Schools) just give up and never let his kids leave the house? No, but if it were, the he would use his clout to do something to remedy the situation.

Joseph was a brilliant, clever child. He seemed to have some interest in our World Studies work, but mostly he was trying to keep up on what was going on around the block. I’ll never know if that’s what killed him or what kept him around as long as he was. We had some great conversations and he had days where he had the most brilliant ideas to share.

I wish I remembered them in this muddle of my mind. I think I’ll go through his work tonight.

What I do remember was a sense that his mind was often elsewhere, and while his intent was to excel in school, he was preoccupied with what was going on beyond the four walls of the classroom.

I visited him frequently in the detention room. He was there, but never really for anything too negative—talking over the instruction, disruption class in various ways, occasionally getting into a mild argument with a classmate. He was pretty calm, flashed his brilliant smile, and worked quietly on make-up work he needed to get back on track.

Earlier this semester he checked completely out of school. He had been suspended several times, and one time he didn’t come back. I asked his sister every time we had a chance how he was doing, and she would say, “Well, you know Joseph. He’s trying…” and she would smile, but I could sense some desperation in her voice.
I hoped each day I would see him back at school, but he didn’t come back. I wanted to go do a home visit, but there was never time. I mean, not in that way where there is time, but you don’t make it—actually not a minute in the day…I think.

When I heard night before last, I wasn’t even surprised. I just thought, “What has this child done to get shot to pieces on his porch feet away from his family?”

Some of you might attempt to answer that question, but I urge you to stop. He’s done no worse that the robber barons and corrupt “do-gooders” who create the economic, social and educational chaos that our kids inhabit and help craft the devil’s bargains that good young people have to choose on.  Joseph opt-out of a education system that didn’t give a shit about his daily struggles and sought to “raise the bar” on his test scores. Two more points on that Explore test wouldn’t have help him before and it sure won’t help him now. Katie Osgood writes better on this than I ever could here.

I don’t want to teach my kids anymore if teaching means “raising the bar” and wondering if I could have done more when I have to put them in the ground. We lose our kids one at a time and it’s not because we don’t have enough “rigor”. We have too much and it’s getting worse. I remember angrily telling a beloved colleague during another frustrating day of testing (we’ve lost about 20 days of instruction to testing this year) that “we lost some kids today and we don’t even know it.”

Joseph knew more than we act like we know. He knew that there was a bullet out there with his name on it, and no amount of racing to the top or “every child can learn” rhetoric was going to save him from it.

I say this not out of fatalism, but out of hope and despair wrapped in the same package. If we empowered these youth, they could take their names off of those bullets, but we are too busy listening to people who feign care for “other people’s” black and brown children.

I loved all of them we’ve lost. Some of them were beautiful, society-changing activists, and others were beautiful, brilliant members of not so beautiful street organizations. And damn those bullets that had Salter, Holt, Daniel, Malcolme, Brown, Briggs, and all the others on them. But damn more the policies that disempower our youth and send those bullets hurtling towards them.

Until the children whose clouted parents run this city have bullets with their names on them, their mommies and daddies will still lock, load and shoot, and ours will keep dropping.

RIP Joseph. You are loved.


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