They buried him with a football tucked into the casket.
In the darkened funeral home, I stared at my former student, my heart and head pounding so crazily that, for a moment, I worried that I might go into cardiac arrest. The stale air clouded the room, smelling faintly of perfume and cologne, teenagers and hair product, of other viewings and other crowding people.
It had been two years since I had last seen DeyQuawn. He had graduated and was working as a bike messenger and attending community college. He had come back to my classroom to visit because I was leaving my job and Baltimore.
DeyQuawn had been full of laughter that day, a huge grin easily cracking his face. He asked me about my fiancé, who was serving a year deployment to Afghanistan. I still had time to invite him to the wedding, DeyQuawn said. He could sit on the floor and eat Oreos—he didn’t need a seat or a dinner. “C’mon, Ms. G.,” he said, his eyes smiling and bright.
That summer, I left my job and that part of my life in the sweltering morass of Baltimore.
And now I stood at his casket where his hands clasped a football.
I could only think that the gunshot that killed him obliterated his jerseyed chest. That he had spent so much time after school working out with the track and football teams and often found his way into my classroom after school, taking a break to say hi, chest heaving. Running by my classroom yelling, “Hi, Ms. G.!” through the open doors. That he had laughed from that chest and—when I called him out on laziness after not reading a book or trying to slink by without doing his best work—he had sighed from that chest, too.
Just days before, I sat in our quiet apartment, a few hours from Baltimore, listening to the whir of the heating system kicking on. Papers were scattered over my desk, and from my window, I watched a spry grandmother push a stroller down the sidewalk.
I had received a text from a former colleague. DeyQuawn had been shot in the night. And he was dead.
I Googled frantically, combing through search results to find something. But soon Facebook posts began appearing on my newsfeed. My former students offered distraught recollections and pictures. In my beige-walled home office, I was worlds away from my old life.
Not again, I thought. Another student, Mike, had been murdered in his car in front of his grandmother’s house the year before.
Suddenly exhausted, I crawled into bed and shook with sobs.
Two years later at a military and first–responders spouse retreat, I sat in a room while the leader announced one of our activities for the week: trap shooting. This would be something we could do with our husbands to understand their world, as members of the military. It could be a point of entry for a conversation, a way to strengthen our marriages. And a night at the shooting range would be a date night he’d enjoy too.
I looked around the room at the battle-weary spouses—most of whom had husbands with PTSD or had been impacted by war and violence. During the sessions, I was guiltily and conspicuously silent: John, while having served in Afghanistan for a year, did not have the bloodstained stories that were expected. John came home from his year away, and we had moved on with our lives. Not because we couldn’t talk about it; not because we were hiding anything. Except for a few mortar rounds that had been tossed across the wire, there was no carnage and horror that everyone seemed to assume he had seen. In fact, my experience as a teacher in Baltimore had a higher body count than John’s deployment to a war zone.
I thought of that as the facilitator spoke about her personal empowerment when, at an earlier event, she had gone beyond her comfort zone and picked up a rifle. The other women in the circle smiled and nodded.
I pushed down the need to apologize, to question why they had chosen me and flown me out. Instead, I sat quietly and respectfully, hoping that no one would guess my secret.
Later in the evening, I sat with Monica—my roommate for the week—in our shared room. The tiny heater ticked, trying to keep out the damp chill of late September in Wyoming. “I can’t do this,” I said in a low tone, worried that I would be overheard. “It’s not that I’m afraid. It’s that I don’t want to do it.”
Even though we had dated while I taught in Baltimore, John’s visits on the weekend were filled with excursions to points of interest—Fort McHenry, the Inner Harbor, Edgar Allen Poe’s grave. On the phone at night, I would tell him stories about my students, their insights, the hilarious things they had done in class. When I broke up a fight and was punched in the face, he orchestrated a magical weekend of activities. We chaperoned prom together at M&T Bank Stadium. He listened and offered advice and let me go on far too long about the curriculum I was developing. Still, he wasn’t with me, immersed in my school and in the lives of my students.
But now, he was there with me, in the car, ready to step into what used to be my world. As we peeled off 95 and headed into the bowels of Baltimore, I mentioned little things—the left I would have taken to get to school, the library where my Poetry Out Loud students competed, how a very large part of me missed everything about teaching in Baltimore.
The autumnal glow of the sunset turned the streets golden. After the four-hour drive to Baltimore, we sat in the parked car for a beat. I took a few deep breaths.
“Okay,” John said, taking off his sunglasses and putting them away.
“Let’s go,” I said.
The funeral home’s parking lot was large, faint city noises carrying in the air. A few car lengths away, I noticed a lanky and sinewy young man. Nolan. One of my former students and DeyQuawn’s inseparable best friend.
We walked over. I said hello and introduced my husband.
Nolan looked at his feet and the cracked, broken pieces of blacktop. He called me Ms. G., but there was no other familiarity in that moment. I was another teacher who had packed up and left. He owed me nothing.
I must have said something more, but now, all I can remember is the drowning feeling in my chest.
“I don’t see race”: It’s such an easy, well-meaning, but dismissive thing that white people say. The truth was, after five years of teaching in Baltimore City, I saw race and the intersection of race and poverty every day with increasing clarity. My students told me about the times they had been followed by shop clerks around stores until they left. That police cars would tap their bikes from the back, sending them careening to the ground on busy streets. A handful had been incarcerated. Others saw their parents through glass windows. And I wept in my apartment after a student had confronted me, asking me why the high school the next county over had French and drama classes and a brand-new building and our school had none of those things.
I wanted my students to see themselves as their best selves—ones who could use their education as a way to accomplish their goals. Students like DeyQuawn made it easy to believe that the long, grasping tendrils of violence would slip by them, reaching toward those—drug dealers, gang members, criminals—who seemed more “deserving” of a Dickensian comeuppance.
Students like DeyQuawn made the lie believable for everyone—the students who worked hard and dreamed of college, the teachers who felt the grip of the city and worked desperately against it, the grandparents and parents who came to my classroom, telling me to do whatever I could to get their kid on the right path.
“She has a smart head on her shoulders,” a parent would say.
“Life is hard, but he can get out,” another said.
These were parents and guardians who worked two, sometimes three, jobs. Who saw the broken, crumbling, forgotten streets and buildings of their city and wished for something better.
“Ms. G., if you need to, you smack him,” a parent told me over the phone one time. “For the time he’s in your classroom, he’s your child. Do what you need to.”
But smacking and after-school study sessions and best wishes still couldn’t deceive those strong, gripping fingers or shield my students from bullets.
At the spouse retreat, we sprawled in a circle, wide windows leading out to the Grand Tetons bringing light into the rustic lodge. Tissues were passed back and forth as wives shared their fears and frustrations, the difficulties that came with being married to men who ran toward danger.
But I couldn’t stop thinking of my former students and the trauma they most certainly endured. Where were the all-expenses-paid retreats in the peaceful recesses of national parks for my students? The counseling help? When I was teaching, a 10th grader had been murdered on the street. There was one school psychologist for a student body of 1,000. As a classroom teacher, I had no mandated trauma training, no instruction or direction; I hadn’t even been told that a student was murdered the night before. I only learned about it as students came sobbing into my classroom, sitting at ages-old desks.
When DeyQuawn was left to bleed out on his kitchen floor, he was the 250th homicide victim in Baltimore in a year that ended with 344. During that same year, 22 U.S. service members are listed as in-theater fatalities.
Those who grieve are all worthy of help and all lives lost are to be mourned, but I felt the yawning discrepancy acutely, there in the shadow of the mountains, as acutely as the half-moon marks my fingernails were wearing into my tightly clenched palms.
“Is this coming from a place of fear?” the facilitator asked me.
I felt like a child trying to get out of phys ed class. “No,” I said. “I don’t want to participate in …” I searched for a word. I explained that, to date, I had four former students shot to death.
“OK,” she said, then mentioned that she would hate to see me miss the opportunity to find some closure or empowerment through the activity. And she pointed out that I could find healing in telling the other women why I would not participate. She encouraged me to say something to the rest of the group, that they would understand. That it could be a moment of healing for everyone.
Sitting on the cold, metal benches in late September in Wyoming, I watched the other retreat attendees swing their shotguns against the sky, following with their barrels the arcing clay disks. In the growing shadows, the reports sang across the meadow and against the mountains and were followed by laughter and celebration as bullets caught a fragment of the disc and exploded the clay in a pop of surprise and activity.
The mountain air was clean and cool, and I shrank into my sweatshirt, hoping no one would notice I had not taken my turn. Another shot. And another. And another.
I thought of my students: the ones who were alive and the ones who were dead. I looked out toward the broken clay pieces in the field’s dying grass.