By Bill Waychunas – It all started as a pretty typical report card pick up. Beginning at 4:00pm, there were parents who were eagerly waiting to find out how their students were doing in classes as their children stood nervously, hoping that the outcomes of that night wouldn’t result in them losing their phones or some similar punishment. They had no idea that this quarter’s Report Card Pick-Up night would be unlike any other.
I teach 9th grade civics at a charter high school on Chicago’s far south side. Despite all of the images and pre-conceived notions which that statement may conjure in one’s mind, especially considering the title of this post, we are proud to say that we are among the best schools in the city. Although more than 95% of our students are low-income and come to us several grade levels behind in their academic and social-emotional skills, we have had some of the top results in terms of growth within the city of Chicago. Part of our focus to improve student gains has been to emphasize parent involvement and communication, including setting the goal of 90% attendance for parent-teacher conferences.
So, here we were. I had already met with the grandmother and father of one of my advisory (homeroom) students. They were always the first ones at Report Card Pick Up and within 15 minutes, they were on their way to meet with other teachers. Next in my classroom was a student who had recently transferred into our school. She came into my classroom with her mother and younger brother. She had asked me a question as I had gone to my desk to retrieve something for our conference when it happened.
The noise came from outside the school; it sounded like from the park across the street. Shamefully, I will admit that my first reaction was to turn to the family in my room and ask, “Were those fireworks?” I quickly stepped out into the hallway and what happened next was simply a whirlwind. A shooting had happened right outside of our building as students and their families were streaming in and out to meet with teachers and get their student’s report cards. Now, we needed to quickly get everyone into lockdown.
The staff heroically sprang into action and began ushering students and families towards the middle of the building and into our library as quickly and calmly as possible. As I waved parents into the library and looked down the hallway towards the entrance at the far corner, I could see that there were dozens of students in their navy blue uniforms streaming into the building.
The screams. That’s what I remember next.
“He’s been shot!”
A crowd of boys rushed in from the outside, carrying another student between their shoulders. They collapsed on the floor and there was screaming and crying all around me. The front office staff and the disciplinarians surrounded him. My stomach sank as the teachers in the hallway rounded up the last few families from the hallway and took them into the library.
The range of reactions within that library was absolutely astounding. The staff mostly was in shock; walking around the room with a look of horror and tears on their faces. Parents were mostly calm, with looks of deep sadness which come from years of being in too many oh-so-similar situations. Some even complained or argued with staff about why they had to stay in this hot room.
As expected there was a lot of crying. At this point, we didn’t know details of what had happened or who was involved or what the condition of the victim was. Some students had been separated from their parents who were in different parts of the building or knew that their families were on their way to conferences. Fear overcame many as they worried about their family’s safety. I snapped out of my trance and started handing my cell phone to students to make phone calls home. After asking several other teachers to do the same, most students had made phone calls and at the very least notified their family of their own safety within a few minutes.
The reactions of other students caught me off-guard. I understand that people cope with trauma in different ways, but I was shocked by the number of students that continued to hang out or joke with friends, one group even going so far as to have a mini-dance competition in the midst of so much sadness and fear. That’s when I realized something that makes my heart ache to this day: for too many of our kids, this was just another Thursday night. Violence and tragedy are so common in their lives that it had become normalized, which is, in part, why so many acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Eventually, we found out that the person shot was a 9th grader at our school. Police were in the building and we could hear the sirens and helicopters outside. We had to keep all of the students and families in the library until we were given the all clear by the police.
At one point, I stood at the doorway, holding it open to get some cool air to circulate into the room. As I held the door open slightly, I looked down that same long hallway towards the far corner and school entrance. This was the same hallway I looked down each and every day from my classroom at the other corner when I first arrived, between classes, during hallway duty, and at the end of the day. If any hallway in the school was “mine,” it was this one.
The school logo and mission were painted sharply in white paint on the blue wall next to the entrance. Today, my view was different. Yellow police tape was stretched and wrapped across the hallway and door; inside this box of police tape was a small pool of blood on the ground and two police officers talking seriously into walkie-talkies and staring at notepads.
After teaching in urban schools for a number of years, I’ve heard plenty about the horrible obstacles and heartbreaking tragedies which too many of our students face in their everyday lives, but this was different. Up until then, student’s lives had been compartmentalized in my reality: “home lives” vs “school lives.” Sure, bad things happened outside of school, but within the walls of the school building and classroom, we had control and created a bubble where those terrible things didn’t happen, or hardly mattered. Now something terrible from the world I had tried so hard to keep away had invaded my world at school and burst that bubble. I’m teaching at this school to make sure that students had opportunities to avoid or change their worlds and prevent violence like this from happening.
And here it was. In my hallway.
Thankfully, the shooting was not fatal and the student has been going through the recovery process. The police also arrested and charged the alleged shooter. For all of the bad things that have been said about Chicago police lately, I have to say that the officers at school that night were fantastic, even escorting staff, students, and families to their cars once the lockdown ended.
Instead of shaking your head after reading this article and saying, “what a shame,” I instead ask you to use it to truly think about the role of schools in the lives of our nation’s poor and disadvantaged.
For me, this tragedy reaffirmed my reasons for teaching at a school in the city. Sadly, for many children living in poverty, school is the safest place for them to be. Urban schools need to be places where students feel safe and have real opportunities to think and learn. Without schools that can provide our students from the most challenging of backgrounds with excellent support and opportunities to learn, they will be doomed to repeat and struggle in worlds of poverty and violence which have plagued many urban communities for generations.
This is why I hope that you don’t dismiss this as another story about a shooting on the south side of Chicago. Poverty and violence are not inevitable. Something can be done and schools are a part of that complex solution. Real students and their families are relying on amazing teachers, staff, and administrators to give them the education needed to do something about it.
So, next time you run into a person who teaches at a “bad” urban school, don’t ask them about if they feel safe at school, how disrespectful the students are, or why they would want to teach in that school. Simply thank them. They are impacting the lives of others in ways that most could never imagine.
P.S. – For more details on the shooting, click here.