I used to teach at a charter school located in Darby. There was, and still is, a lot of street violence in that area in regards to gangs and drugs. I taught the students who were coming back from Glen Mills Detention Center or were in danger of dropping out or failing out of school. In the six years that I taught at this charter school, I lost seven students to street violence. The one loss that had the greatest effect on me was when one of my seniors, Mohammed, who I had the pleasure of teaching all four years, was murdered in April of 2010. I remember the moment I found out and all of the feelings still follow me to this day.
The director of the charter school called me the night it happened. I experienced the loss of a family member before, but for some reason this loss affected me more. I was walking to my room while talking to the director, and I dropped to the floor when she told me what happened. My heart fell into the pit of my stomach. I cried out my pain like a newborn. Mohammed turned 18 years old two weeks before he was shot. He had scholarships to two colleges. He was a brilliant young man with so much to give the world, and he was taken too soon. I never did, and I will never say that Mohammed was perfect because he was far from it. All I can say, no matter how many times we would argue we had enough respect for each other to apologize. Mohammed was taken way too soon.
After I found out the news, I went to work the next day and we didn’t teach at all. We counseled the students because everyone knew who he was. He, at one point in his life, touched the lives of others around him. I hugged 6’2” tall crying boys, trying to reassure them that everything was going to be ok, that they would survive and heal, while I felt like I was just walking around like a zombie because I didn’t know how to deal with this. We as teachers had to physically restrain some students from leaving the school to retaliate, not knowing what they would do after school. I remember I asked his best friend Corey to just come to school the next day. I tried to tell him that violence doesn’t solve violence. We called in grief counselors to help us along with the students. How do we, as teachers, try to put our pain on hold so we can help our students? Is that even possible? Should that even be done? Is it wrong for a student to see a teacher grieve for the same person lost? I don’t think it’s wrong at all. For some students, it’s important for them to see how much teachers care. Some don’t see it at home, and the one place they do see some type of caring is at school.
For a whole week we had counseling for the students. They wouldn’t talk to the grief counselors we brought in because they didn’t know them and didn’t trust them. We got a crash course in grief counseling while we were grieving ourselves. On the third day we actually told some funny stories about Mohammed and had a good time. It was nice to remember and to cry because we were all laughing so hard, not because we were dying inside. On the fourth day, the 19 year old who killed him was caught, along with a 17 year old Mohammed got in a fight with. It turns out the whole fight was over a girl. Mohammed was shot in the stomach over a girl. There is no sense in violence.
I have one of his last papers that he wrote on his parent’s life in Sierra Leone. I also have a copy of the last poem he wrote. He always hated writing poetry but was so good at it. He had to write a poem for an assignment, and this was a time where he admitted that he wanted to stop fighting. Unfortunately, sometimes what we want to happen doesn’t always happen.
I will always remember Mohammed. I will always remember what happened to him. I will also remember how he helped me become a better teacher. Just like I would challenge my students, he would challenge me. He would challenge me by asking me why. Just that one question was my challenge and I am forever grateful for that.