"She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss."
I have been feeling guilty for not writing anything on this blog about the gun death of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl who attended Martin Luther King College Preparatory High School, the selective enrollment high school where my next-door neighbor teaches drama. For the climax of his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama began to describe Hadiya, whose parents were seated next to the First Lady, using the above sentence. He went on to embellish his portrait, but it is an interesting starter to me, because, delivered in Obama's signature matter-of-fact style, it portrays her as just, or merely, a girl.
A girl who, instead of going straight home after school got out early, decided to go hang out in the park with some friends. It is not a big leap of the imagination, when put this way, to believe that Hadiya could have been a student at the school where I taught. We sometimes hold our breath on the days that students get out early, fearing that just these sorts of feuds will have just enough more daylight for the worst to happen.
When the Newtown shooting happened in December, I was certain that it would prove to be the catalyst for real anti-violence reform at the federal level. I was wrong. The real catalyst was not the death of two dozen innocent children; rather, it was the death of a single, defenseless girl.
It matters, too, that Pendleton was just a girl. And she, like so many young women, was such a wonderful girl: she was beloved by everyone around her. Had she been male, the outpouring of grief over her death might have been more easily tempered by questions about what she was doing in that park that afternoon. Equally significant, then, is that the first reform program announced in the wake of Hadiya's death is one from which she would not benefit at all: a $3m investment in the mentoring program known as "Becoming a Man." It does not necessarily need pointing out that Hadiya Pendleton probably had no desire to become a man. This mentoring program, which, like many mentoring and tutoring and after-school programs, has had some success in keeping young men and boys occupied so that they will not be "sucked in" to other, more violent pursuits. It begs the question, then, that "Becoming a Man" might have saved Hadiya, if indirectly, by preventing her killers from becoming involved in a gang. But, as I have written before, programs for teens tend to be very heterosexist in the ways that they insist on strict boundaries between two genders and the behaviors (stereo)typically practiced by those two genders. It deserves pointing out that there are plenty of young women and girls who get up to no good after school, too, and they need things to do after school, too.
Last year, one of my students told me about an argument she had with her father when she wanted to become involved in such afterschool programs as the newspaper and sports teams. Her father didn't want her walking home after dark, which, in these Chicago winters, comes all too quickly. She argued, in response, that he would not make the same interdiction against a male child. And that's almost definitely true. But, considering Hadiya Pendleton or the countless unnamed innocent victims of poorly-targeted gun violence, who can blame him?
A school that offers every possible sport, that keeps its gym and weight room open, that has a newspaper and a ballroom dance club--that school is preventing violence every day, and, at least at my school, our principal knows it.
Unfortunately, most of these things happen because teachers are willing to donate their time and sponsor these extracurricular activities for no pay. Coaches get paid a small sum, but club sponsors do not. There can be a lot of pressure on teachers to offer activities, because we, too, know what goes on out there if we are not making life interesting enough inside the building.
So you know what? I'll take Becoming a Man. It took the prominent death of an ordinary girl and some journalists pointing out that the park in which Hadiya was shot and killed is just a mile from the President's own Hyde Park-Kenwood mansion. But what a mile! As friends and readers who live in Chicago know, Hyde Park and Bronzeville often appear much farther apart than that, as do Austin and Oak Park, also only a mile apart. It bears pointing out that Harlem and the Upper East Side of New York City are also about a mile apart. A mile is a long way in the big city.
The President's address began to swell into oratory on the note of Pendleton's death. In the style of the man whose name graces Hadiya's school, Obama listed the locales that give a name to other American gun massacres. Newtown. Aurora. Gabby Giffords. There were more, but I sort of lost track, except to notice the places he didn't name, because they are too old, too long gone, to name: Virginia Tech. Northern Illinois University. Fort Hood. The oratory culminated on the refrain, "They deserve a vote." I lost count of how many times the President said it.
But what kind of vote? A vote on what? It will take more than $3 million to memorialize Hadiya Pendleton, the children of Newtown, and the other untold hundreds killed every year in Chicago, and elsewhere.
Yesterday I was listening, as I always do, to Chicago Public Radio, and I heard two pieces that, to me, say more than I can ever try to about the life and death of a girl, or any child, in the city of Chicago. So here they are.
The first is the story of the violence interrupter Ameena Matthews. Matthews grew up in Chicago and is the daughter of Black P Stones founder Jeff Fort. Matthews is so poised and full of grace about her past life as a gang member that she leaves me speechless.
The second is the story of the recent gun death of another Chicago teen, this time on the west side. Unlike the case of Hadiya Pendleton (whose tragic proportions I by no means want to diminish), this murder will probably go unsolved.