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Dead Child Walking

Some friends from church and I periodically do a community prayer walk, engaging people on the streets to find out what's going on and how we can pray for them. On the evening of August 26, I approached a group of teenagers and asked them how things were going. That's when I met Monique (not her real name), a 17-year-old who felt like a dead girl walking.

"My school sucks!" said Monique, repeating it twice. It was the first thing she said when I asked her how I should pray. When she told me the name of her high school I knew exactly what she meant: High gang activity, low academic achievement, poor physical upkeep, etc. Monique went on to say that so many things have gone wrong in her life that she didn't know where to start.

"Pray for my boyfriend, that he will get himself together and that he won't end up dead," she said. Then she named at least eight of her friends who have been gunned down in Chicago in the last couple of years. Her future prom date was the latest victim, shot and killed in June--just three days after his high school graduation.

"He was jumping up and down, happy because he graduated," Monique said, "but what was the point of that achievement if he's gonna be dead?"

That comment made me think of the new Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz documentary, The Interrupters. It's a gritty but inspiring film that follows three former gang members in their desperate mission to stop gun violence on some of Chicago's roughest streets. According to reports, 83 Chicago Public School children were murdered from 2008-2009; 68 were killed from 2009-2010; and as of May 2011 some 20 have been slain.

I told Monique that she was a strong person because she told her stories so matter-of-factly.

"I'm not strong, I'm a cry baby," she said. "I go in the shower, turn the water on, and cry so that no one can see my tears." She said she was "paranoid" that she will be the next one to get killed. After all, her younger sister was caught in the crossfire and died, and an older brother was purposely gunned down.

Monique wants to go to either UCLA or Miami University for choreography, but she wants to do nails on the side. She showed me her freshly polished fingernails and toes. She had glued a pink heart-shaped bead atop her middle fingernail, which she sucked on nervously as we talked.

When I asked about her mother, Monique said she and her mother have an extremely turbulent relationship. So last year she moved in with her boyfriend. He got her pregnant with twins, but she ended up losing the babies at four-and-a-half months after getting into a fist fight with his 36-year-old foster mother. Now she is back at home.

I asked her if she was making all this up. It embarrassed me to ask because the essence of her story ran so familiar. In elementary school, I had a Monique in my class; In fact, she lived right next door. In high school, I knew several Moniques, but we had nothing in common and intentionally ran in contrasting circles. But my perspective on Monique has changed as an adult. I no longer avoid her. In fact, I find myself wanting to be bothered, wanting to connect, wanting to gently help.

When our hour-long sidewalk chat ended, the sun was setting and all of Monique's friends were gone. I gave her a hug, my cell phone number, and an invitation to call me anytime. I told her I was a teacher and could be her mentor, if she wanted one.

My calls for drastic education reform are not rooted in ideology or in politics. I want reform for girls like Monique (and for boys like Montana from my second blog). Her school cannot fix all the drama and trauma in her life, but it should at least be a safe haven for her. It should at least be a place that drives her toward hope, toward ambition—not one that "sucks!" Urban school districts have to raise expectations for parents, students, administrators, and teachers. Mayors have to raise expectations for aldermen and the police. Leaders of churches, mosques and synagogues have to raise expectations for their ministers and congregants. We all have to get our hands dirty and make sacrifices to engage and take back the community. We can no longer apply subtle, incremental changes to fix our radical problems. We need the tenacity of the three "Interrupters" in the film who bothered the hell out of people at risk of violent retaliation by staying at their sides until they got to a calmer place.

I live in inner-city Chicago; I don't commute here to teach. Some nights I hear gun fire in the distance in the same way my students do. Girls like Monique live in my neighborhood, not just in my classroom. We shop at the same grocery store and get our hair done at the same beauty shop. The fact that Monique poured out her heart to me—a complete stranger—shows that she longs to be heard. I listened. I prayed. I'm telling her story in this blog post. And I am really hoping she rings my phone so perhaps I, too, can be an "interrupter."

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