I was only 11 years old the first time I witnessed a murder. I knew the man who was shot, and I saw his face opening as the assailant “unloaded” on him. His head hanging back on the headrest, neck bent in an unnatural backward curvature. His face opened like a flower blooming, broken and grotesque. I couldn’t look away.
This is the way they eliminated life in my city, Chicago. It wouldn’t be the last time I saw the light go out of someone’s eyes. Over the years, I would lose so many family members, loved ones, close friends, neighbors and classmates that I stopped counting.
It wasn’t the last time I would ask the question, with a quivering chill over my body and a deadening stillness over my mind, “Am I next?”
It wasn’t the last time I would see the repercussions of systematic oppression in my neighborhood, and, when I left Chicago for good, I found I hadn’t escaped that vision of violence and death because it is so heavily ingrained in every poor, urban neighborhood in America. It was the life I chose when I decided to support people like me.
My fight and passion brought me to environments that triggered me, and this was simply the cost of being an advocate—I had to be okay with that.
Once I became a teacher and advocate for urban students of color in poverty, on average each year, I’ve lost about three students to gun violence over the 15 years I’ve taught and worked with children. Some years I would lose as many as five of the students I fought for…the students I fought with.
Some died in domestic disputes, some died because they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time while others died because they succumbed to a cycle of poverty they didn’t know how to get away from. They joined their brothers and cousins, their uncles and aunties, their sisters and mothers into an early grave.
Marching for Their Lives
As I stood at ‘March for Our Lives’, I tried not to cry. I held back the tears speech after speech—whispering the names of my students and telling them, “I’m standing here for you.” Afraid to speak, I proudly raised my fist in solidarity with speakers as others cheered.
Then, they said her name, Taiyania Thompson, and I came completely undone. I taught her for a brief period at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year when I first moved to Washington, D.C. Taiyania, 16, was beautiful, vibrant, focused and hilarious. Each day, she would come to class, complete her work, and watch “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah in my classroom during lunch. We laughed and hugged each day. When I would pick on her about the amount of lip gloss she used to wear, she would say, “Don’t hate Ms. Whitted, you know my lips be poppin’!”
By January, I was teaching at a new school in Southwest D.C. when I received a text message from a former colleague stating that Taiyania had been shot in the head, allegedly by a boyfriend, and was not expected to survive. I broke down as if I had lost my daughter.
When Naomi Wadler, an 11-year-old student at George Mason Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia mentioned Taiyania’s name, an unstoppable deluge of tears flowed for her and every child I lost over the years, for every family member, for every friend, for every community, for every child, for every parent, for every pain we’ve all felt.
In her speech, Wadler says,“I am here to acknowledge the African-American girls whose storied don’t make the front page of every national paper…these stories don’t lead on the evening news. I represent the African-American women who are victims of gun violence, who are simply statistics instead of vibrant girls full of potential’,
It was that moment I realized how hurt I was—how broken I’ve become…how long I had avoided remembering what I had seen…how I never took the proper time to grieve because I always felt beginning to grieve would mean I’d never stop crying. There are simply too many people to mourn. I realized how much I avoided getting lost in grief, so I neglected myself thinking Why should I cry? I’m still alive! They don’t need my tears; they need my action! Now, more than ever, I realize that my voice, my actions and my success are theirs.
Standing in the Gap
Although attending the march was important to me as a teacher, I was there to make sure I stood in the gap for the many children of color whose lives have always been forever altered due to the gun violence that plagues our communities. I was glad people came together to support the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida.
However, the biggest positive about the march and rally was that those students created a platform for children of color to speak about and against the violence that has been plaguing their communities for decades.
Edna Chavez, from South Los Angeles, remembered her brother, Christopher Underwood, from Brooklyn, spoke about the loss of his brother—his best friend, Zion Kelly, D.C. native, spoke about the death of his twin brother Zaire, Mya Middleton, Alex King, D’Angelo McDade, and Trevon Bosley, all from Chicago, talked about the systematic economic oppression and relentless gun violence plaguing their Chicago neighborhood, and unleashed their personal stories of tragedy, and even Martin Luther King Jr.’s granddaughter, 9-year-old, Yolanda Renee King, led us in a chant as she expressed her desire to see a gun-free America.
The fact that Parkland students checked their privilege and gave space for the voices of children who have long experienced the anxiety that comes with being afraid one will die on their way home from school—wrestling with the fear that he/she will lose another family member, friend or loved one to gun violence solidified that this movement is one of solidarity and love.
As Jaclyn Corin, Parkland shooting survivor, so eloquently stated, “We recognize that Parkland received more attention because of its affluence, but we share this stage today and forever with those communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun.”
For their acceptance and perseverance, our youth are changing the polarity of the political landscape in our country. This gives me great hope. Because of our young people’s drive, I believe the “March for Our Lives” is only the beginning of us finally coming together and championing the cause for protecting our children and communities.