This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa.
Last Sunday, 16-year-old Ulysis Grijalva was shot and killed in Richmond. It was the city's 13th homicide of the year and the news hit Grijalva's classmates and fellow football players at Kennedy High School hard.
West Contra Costa school board President Charles Ramsey said he was concerned about the dangers of living in Richmond. Three years ago, he said, the district had a record 11 students killed in during one school year. That's a record no district wants to break.
Such deaths weigh on the minds and hearts of students, teachers and community members. In March, Giorgio Cosentino -- a science teacher on leave from Richmond High -- wrote an essay describing his reaction to the death of one of his former students. With his permission, I am sharing his (excerpted) essay below, in which he has changed the student's name.
"The headlines of the West County Times described a brazen daylight 'rolling shootout' on a street in west Richmond ... Ricky Clark, one of my dearest former students (teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but we do), was in the process of dying in a hail
I wish I could preserve Ricky's innocence by telling you that he was just a bystander, but that was not the case, as evidenced by the AK47 assault rifle found on his lap in the crashed Plymouth at the cordoned-off yellow-taped 'crime scene". On another street somewhere in Richmond, the same yellow tape still dangled from a lamp post, evidence of the previous day's prequel -- another shooting that started the clock ticking for Ricky's final 24 hours of life ... He was 19 years old ... Only those blessed to have known him would see Ricky as a victim as opposed to just another 'gangbanger,' 'hoodlum,' 'angry black man,' or worse.
No one would read about how hard his single-parent mother worked to keep him on a path that did not include guns, gangs, drugs, and violence, in a neighborhood saturated with all. From our phone calls and meetings, it was clear to me that she wanted the best for Ricky ...
I believe after a quick assessment of me, he realized that I was not a 'hater,' just a teacher doing his job ... Ricky's warmth and vital disposition made a teacher only want to try harder at mastering the tricks of motivation. The other students also enjoyed his comedic, jocular nature. The boys appreciated and respected him for his cool and cockiness. All of the girls, irrespective of race, wanted to help him. Not missing a beat, I took advantage of their maternal quality and paired them with Ricky. Shy at first, but with a grin and eyebrows raised, I believe Ricky to have been most appreciative of this strategy.
The stale sweet smell of cigarettes and marijuana on his oversized jacket and his bloodshot eyes provided clues into the life that this 16-year-old child led when he left the musty-smelling dilapidated 'ghetto' classroom. Occasionally, Ricky would blurt out in the middle of my lectures, 'Mr. C. I love you, man!' Slightly distracted, I would calmly respond, 'I love you too, Ricky,' then quickly resume my lecture ... I never saw one hint of anger in Ricky, making it even more difficult for me to fathom any scenario that could have led to Ricky picking up an assault rifle. Maybe it was not about anger, but about self-defense. Kill or be killed. Take it to the enemy before he does you. I choose to believe Ricky was just trying to survive the day he died.
The last time I saw Ricky was in a bike shop. three years after I was his teacher, one year before he died ... I recognized Ricky's laughter ...'Mr. C!' he hollered across the store, now drawing eye-raising attention of employees and shoppers alike. We gave each other a quick hug and slap of the shoulders while everyone, including Ricky's friends, looked on ...
We chatted briefly about what we had been up to and the good ol' days of physical science class ... then laughing uncontrollably, Ricky and his buddies stumbled out the door, bouncing into the street, so full of life ... With some students, a teacher can predict such an ending. With Ricky, I never saw it coming."
Staff writers Natalie Neysa Alund and Daniel M. Jimenez contributed to this report.
Do you think schools can help prevent such tragic endings?