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Gun violence in the words of youth

Wed, Jul 10, 2013

The doors of De LaSalle Institute were wrenched shut as I tried to pry them open to attend an awards ceremony for the 18th Annual Student Voices Contest programmed by the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence (ICHV) on Thursday, June 13. The sight was oddly unsettling. The school custodian finally had to open the door to let me in.

The room was silent and the humid climate made me sweat. I found a chair next to a family with a video camera. The other 50 or so people in attendance were scattered about the room.

Meghan Senjanin, a DeLaSalle teacher and MC for the event, began by introducing the student winners, the judges in attendance, and the head of the ICHV, Colleen Daley.

Liz Cullen of CBS Radio, who was also a judge of the contest, said that this contest provides healing for students who have experienced gun violence first hand.

“About five years ago, 15 percent of the essays and poems that I read were personal experiences involving gun violence,” Cullen said. “This year it was about 80 percent.”

That outrageous number astonished me, and I surveyed the room again. The teary-eyed faces that littered the room were confirmation that I was not the only one shocked by this statistic.

Cullen then called each winner up and presented him or her with a certificate and an iPad. Before each winner sat back down, they showed off each of their winning works. The winners were all different ages, genders and ethnicities. Although, their styles of work varied tremendously, they spoke to each of us as if we were a part of their work too.

Some were simple depictions of gun violence, like the shootings in Aurora, Colo. and Sandy Hook. Most, however, were first-hand experiences.

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One 8th grade boy wrote a poem in tribute to his brother, whom he had to bury as a result of gang affiliated gun violence.

“My dreams to be like you fancy and bad in the streets/
I bury them here today as you slumber in forever sleep/
For I know now that, this is not the life for me/
So thanks big brother for looking at me/
looking at you looking at me/
and showing me that this is not how my life is going to be.”

As he spoke these words, with the flow and delivery of a lyrical genius, the crowd could not contain their stifled tears. Another young girl hardly spoke the words “good morning,” before collapsing onto the ground in baleful sobs.

I tried scribbling notes, trying to do the “journalist” thing by capturing the mood of the room, but I am too poor of a writer to truly describe this emotional atmosphere. I simply put down my pen and pad and tried my best to just listen and take in the gravity of these fleeting moments.

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The most tender and tear-jerking moment, however, was still to come. When a young girl was introduced as a 10th grader from King College Prep, my head – which had been buried in my hands – poked up to stare at her. I am not from Chicago, but I knew that I had heard the name of that school before. Maybe in the news somewhere, or maybe one of my friends from college went there. I let that thought slip into the back of my mind as the young lady began to read her winning essay.

As she began to read, the man next to me broke down and tossed his video camera aside. His younger child next to him was holding him in an embrace. It was a beautiful father-son moment brought on by this tragic essay.

I focused in on the young woman’s words as she spoke.

“Hadiya had a smile that could light up a stadium. Her spirit of thoughtfulness, elation & friendliness permeated throughout her life.”

As these words left her mouth, I knew where I had heard of King College Prep. It was in the news. It was the school that Hadiya Pendleton had attended.

She continued to read her essay, going through the last day that she and Hadiya spent together. They were best friends and had just finished taking their gym final together. It was a warm January day, so they decided to go to Kennicott Park at 4434 S. Lake Park Ave. to hang out.

“I checked my texts and looked around a little just in time to see a guy pointing a gun at us,” she read. “My warning to the group was cut off by the pierce of gunshots ringing out at about 2 p.m… I looked over to [Hadiya], and as I called her name, she said, ‘I think I got shot. Did I get shot?’ She had indeed.” She paused there as if she could read no further, but collected herself and continued on.

“Time moved in slow motion as we waited for the ambulance. I held her hand and talked to her. Her lips were losing color as I continued to talk about the good things to come in the future. ‘We’re going to have so much fun in June at our party, I’m going to get all the Twilight DVD’s for you to watch in the hospital and bring you so many Fig Newtons and have [my] mom make you tea everyday until you get better.’ She said nothing back.”

As she continued to read, a police siren rang out in the distance, almost as if it was done on cue. I don’t know if anyone else heard the siren. They might all have been too caught up in her words to notice, or maybe they were just desensitized to sounds like this. But it made me think that possibly, right then, someone was in the same situation as Hadiya and her friend. Maybe someone was walking home from school and was gunned down. Or maybe it was a gang shooting. It didn’t matter. If there is one thing that I learned that day, it was that a life is a life.

She continued her essay, holding back tears herself, but her voice was adamant. She said that when Hadiya’s death was first reported, the reporter mispronounced her name as well as stereotyped her and her friends as thugs.

Her essay was a call to action. She told us to make a difference. “Make it personal, not political,” she said.

She closed by saying that Hadiya’s death was not unlike any other loss of life. But why do we all know the name “Hadiya Pendleton?” Why did I know what school she went to? The answer for her was simple. “The difference is, our friends, our families, our school and our community would not allow you to stop talking about her.”

After the ceremony, I had to take a few minutes to cool off. My thoughts were scrambled and I didn’t know what to make of the event. I talked to Colleen Daley of ICHV to see if I could gather some sort of focus for my article, which was originally supposed to be a mere rehashing of the ceremony.

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Daley said that there were about 1,700 participants this year. She was happy to have been a part of the ceremony, as I was. “This is a great event. We know how prevalent this issue is, and we have developed programs in schools to teach these kids as well,” Daley said.

Peer-to-peer relations are the driving focus behind ICHV’s campaign. “Most adults live in a bubble. This gives students, who usually do not have a voice, who cannot vote, a chance to speak their minds about gun violence,” Daley said.

I don’t think anyone in attendance expected it to be so powerful. If one thing is for sure, their voices were heard. That ceremony haunted me on my train ride home. I reread every essay and every poem. It is strange that these innocent young kids had such efficacious thoughts on something that is so foreign to me (and to those in political office for that matter).

I now realized why the De LaSalle’s doors were sealed shut. These students live and learn each day under swallowing clouds of fear. I suppose that the only response that I can summon is from a second grader’s essay: “Stop the violence!”

By Torey Darin
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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