Today, the Community where I have learned and taught for the past 12 years laid to rest another young soul. Our student Kevin Cleveland Jr. aka “Doodie” as he was affectionately known as was murdered April 4th on the corner of Vermont and 60th.
This would be my 5th student in less than 2 and a half years, who I have had to help lay to rest. First there was Elijah aka “Yellah.” Then Patty. I then found out about Eric. And this past summer, our boy Sergio. Today: Kevin. Each of these moments, communities coming together to recognize “exit” are a painful balance of celebration and sorrow. Each time, a struggle to learn the same lesson again. And again.
And what of remembrance? The act of forming memories into a sequence of comprehension, all the while knowing that what begs this remembrance is an incomprehensible cycle of violence. Trying to make sense out of the non-sensical. Making meaning. It’s what is at the heart of all learning, even the hardest of life’s lessons. And yet it is ours to make, in the image of what? Or who? Or… how? How shall we remember?
As a history, teacher part of me wants to respond that the only true benefit to the act of remembrance is for the purposes of critically analyzing past events in order to make meaning; for the present and future. But in times like these this intellect will only take me so far. This type of remembrance does not satisfy the soul. Healing needs more than this. And so we come together, because healing is social and communal.
Sitting today in the Grace Memorial Chapel was another sobering reminder of how much trauma certain communities are faced with while some are lavishly and ignorantly shielded from the realities of others. As I watched students and families that I’ve worked with laugh and cry, celebrate and grieve… I was once again awed by the resiliency of people who face strife in everyday life and continue to keep on living, despite or perhaps in spite of it all. I was once again brought humbly before myself and others, honored to be blessed with the opportunity to serve the community of South Central Los Angeles.
In this service, I have learned so many lessons. Some I’ve written about here, others have been tucked away, awaiting the day when I can properly contemplate their true meaning. Some of these lessons have had to be framed within the profound contexts of life and death. As was today’s lesson. It was facilitated by our very own Pastor Cagle, who’s work and spirit I have been blessed to have been touched by this year. As he and other former gang members have helped me to intervene and at times prevent our children from going down the path of violence, he has also reminded me of the power of prayer and faith. Regardless of religion, the ability to find the profound and spiritual side of our work, so often necessary to continue to struggle.
In Pastor Cagle’s eulogizing of Little Kevin, he offered a theme that has been resonating with me ever since. He said “we often prepare to arrive, but we don’t prepare for the exit.” These words can do no justice the spirit and reverence with which they were delivered on this day. For they were designed to help heal a grieving mom, a hurting community, one willing to go to war as a response. His words were designed and delivered to bring out the fire and righteousness of peace. And yet these words also offered a window into my own soul as I gaze out onto the path set before… as I contemplate my transition out of South Central Los Angeles.
As I attempt to prepare for my own exit out of a community and region that has become such a part of me, I’m momentarily lost despite having a clear direction. I’m unable to fully grasp how to prepare for my exit as I simultaneously plan for my arrival in another space. I’m as torn and saddened by my decision to close this chapter of my life as I am happy and certain about moving forward.
PAUSE…. wait a minute. Let me catch my breath.
The above words were written over two weeks ago. 4 days ago I found out that one of our first Hawkins freshmen students was shot and killed early Monday morning, an attempted armed roberry gone really bad. One of his best friends, another student of ours, was also involved and is now encarcerated.
It’s is hard to process these events in such rapid succession. It becomes exponentially difficult when you are charged with helping others process their grief and manage tragedy and traumatic loss, when you are in crisis response mode.
I was awoken this morning by a nightmare. Two students were walking around our campus. They had several guns placed at different points throughout the school, which they would pick up and fire randomly, at items and twice at students, killing them both. I was following them but I was ignored. They didn’t turn to me and respond in anger. They didn’t respond to my pleas to stop. I was helpless to stop the violence.
As I try and think through my life as a teacher in South Central Los Angeles and the lives and deaths of students like Alex… I am stricken by a sadness that bears the weight of responsibility. It’s a version of guilt but it’s not the same. Alex, like many of his friends, were very clear about the path “they chose.” Understanding all the systems at play from my vantage point as an elder now (in comparison to my junveniles) I would often contest the amount of choice in these types of tragedies, but to a certain degree Alex and his friends were right. No matter what we still have a choice in the matter. Some choices unfortunately reflect more death then life.
In our last text message communique a few weeks back, it was clear our philosophies were at odds but we were not. It was hard for me to see his path so clearly laid out before us both. But I appreciated his candor and the level of mutual respect our lives as student and teacher had born out.
PAUSE…. wait a minute. Let me catch my breath.
I’m being called back to the Hawk’s nest from my UTLA meeting for yet another tragic loss. I’m returning because I have a responsibility to be there for my young folks during crisis. We are on crisis overload and I don’t know how to manage. But we have to. I have to.
Why is this happening? This kid was 2 weeks away from graduation. Eric. I can’t believe. Not yet. I’m not sure how much more our school can take.
Eric was full of life and light. I would come across him and his girlfriend often these last two years in the hallways. I never really tripped too hard because I still remember what it was like to be young and in love. And they were always respectful. He was always respectful. The way he said my name, “Ok Gomez.” His sense of humor always got me. He could put a smile on my face with ease. Not insignificant given my rehearsed new age dean deadpan stare. In the classroom I always appreciated his negotiating skills. But I was also impressed by how confidently he could ask for help. This is a skill that is often underestimated by staff and students alike.
When Elijah died, Eric took it hard. As did most of the football players. Yet again our young man will have to rally around each other and support. Especially as we approach that culmination that these two young men had been working so hard to get to. And as much as graduation is the end of one chapter, we must remind ourselves that a culmination is a beginning. And it is in this where we might find hope in the hard times.
Today was difficult. Many days have been difficult as of late. And yet there are so many examples of young people leading themselves through the most arduous of circumstances. Demonstrating our 5th school wide norm, RESILIENCY. We remind ourselves and acknowledge when we are “being resilient.” This is my favorite norm. Because it puts me in the space of learner, fully and completely.
In the last 12 years I have learned so much from the community of South Central Los Angeles. I’ve learned about true resilience in the face of struggle. I’ve been schooled on sacrifice. I’ve been tested in faith and have had to reassess my own aspirations and dreams. The children on this great place have taught me about the true meaning of love and it’s importance in the learning process. And it is this learning that I will take forward with me as I prepare to continue teaching in another community.
As I traverse this city of Angels, from edge to edge… I cannot help think about how much this land in particular is a part of me. The geography of my own existence has been so altered by my time in Los Angeles. The geography of my family, my friends, my students and colleagues is forever etched in the contours of my heart, within the expanse of my soul. And even when this spirit pains, I know I can depend upon the many of this city that have touched me, the better Angels of their nature. I can only hope that those whom I’ve attempted to impact feel somehow similar. This is how I have to prepare for my exit. It will not be easy, but… it never was. With you all, I know I got this.
The above post was written over a period of two months… Two of the most difficult years of my professional career.