By Neva Rodriguez
In the early nineties our lives consisted of going to school and running home as part of our daily routine. It wasn’t long before she learned that when everyone around us started running she needed to run. That was our way of life. It seemed to be the case more often than not, especially during the fall and spring. Winter was too cold for running. The snowfall was our safety net. It seemed to keep the gang members on lock down.
Monique and I actually became friends while running.
“Hey girl, run!” I screamed to her one day while walking home from school.
“Why?” She asked as I pushed past her.
I didn’t turn back though. I didn’t need to explain. Seconds later, the first shots were fired. I was lost in the crowd that ran past Monique. I felt bad for her, being the new girl and all, but she was alright. We all were. No one got shot that day. There were many times that our principal’s voice came across the intercom and asked that we take a moment of silence to remember one of the students who had been shot the previous afternoon. It didn’t usually get to me. It didn’t usually get to anyone in my class until Tara died. That was the worst. We all cried that Tuesday morning that the principal’s voice came across the speaker and broke the news that Tara was no longer with us.
“Damn gangs!” Mrs. Humphries exclaimed, before breaking down in tears and apologizing to us.
She didn’t need to apologize for saying that, everyone was in tears. Mrs. Humphries put her head down on her desk for a moment and then lifted it without meeting any of our concerned gazes and threw a book across the room at the door. Everyone was in tears including Alex who also went by “Big Red” outside of class. Alex wasn’t tall and his hair wasn’t red. He was actually about my height, 5’3 and had curly brown hair that fell across his tan skin. I heard someone say once that he was called “Big Red” after the bubble gum.
Tara was different then all the crazy gang bangers that filled our classroom. She wasn’t like the rest of us who had grown a cold heart over years of dealing with life on the South Side of Chicago, who ran when we had to, or ducked into an apartment’s entrance to get out of the way of the gang members running down the middle of the street and shouting vulgar phrases at one another. Her motivation towards learning and for coming to school every day with a smile on her face sometimes confused me. Tara’s boyfriend was the problem. He was the one who was in a gang. He was the one the bullet was intended for. They missed him and shot her straight in the head. I didn’t know why she was with that loser anyway.
I glanced over at Monique. She was obviously in shock. I bet she had never experienced anything like this being from down south. I bet she didn’t even know anyone that had died. She sat without a tear in her eye and for a second I hated her. How could anyone be able to not experience death? Hell, we heard about shootings every day on the news. Was her news really that different? I knew things like this didn’t happen all over the United States. I hated this place, this school, this neighborhood! I couldn’t wait to get out of here and move as far away from Chicago as I could get. It wasn’t getting better. I wanted to make it to adulthood.
“Hey,” I whispered at Monique. “Did you ever know anyone that died before?”
She looked at me for a moment and then shook her chunky head. Her bangs blown to the side, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was clueless to our world of broken dreams. I remember that when we were in kindergarten they used to ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up. No one ever said alive. No one ever knew that this was what our fate was. My life-our lives just seemed unreal. I felt like I was an adult already and I wasn’t even eighteen.
“What was it like where you are from?” I quietly asked Monique.
“It wasn’t like this!” Monique blurted out.
Everyone around us turned around. I felt my body melt into my seat. My shoulders dipped down, my brown hair fell to my mid back and I repositioned myself in my chair. Monique’s composure was unchanged. She turned to meet everyone’s glare.
“I didn’t have to run home from school-ever. I walked.” She said. “We didn’t have to worry about how what we were wearing was perceived. We went to school every day and there were no fights in the hallway. This right here is some bullshit.”
She sat back in her chair smugly with an angry look on her face.
I looked over at Mrs. Humphries to see if she had heard what Monique had just said and saw that she had. I decided that if Monique had to go to the principal’s office I would go with her. Mrs. Humphries looked at us without saying anything for a moment. She suddenly sat up straight in her desk and looked around at the class.
“You’re right Ms. Groiler, this is some bullshit.” Mrs. Humphries suddenly blurted out. “Excuse my French, but Monique is right. Let’s talk about this bullshit.”
Everyone sat in shock. It was obvious that no one knew what to say. I had never heard a teacher cuss before and I was sure that no one else had either. Mrs. Humphries was very quiet and rarely did anything other than calling attendance in homeroom. Claudia raised her hand and we all turned to stare at her.
“Yes Ms. Perez?” Mrs. Humphries asked.
“I would just like to say that Tara was a really nice girl, a real inspiration to me.” Claudia replied quietly.
We all nodded as she looked around the room. The room was quiet for a moment. Mrs. Humphries finally broke the silence.
“How many of you are in a street gang?” Mrs. Humphries asked.
No one raised their hand. The guys who I knew were involved in gangs did not look at each other, neither did the girls. They stared down at their desk. No one dared to point them out. That would have been met with a good punishment.
“How many of you have ever been around, when some idiot started shooting?” Mrs. Humphries asked.
Everyone raised their hand, even Monique. Mrs. Humphries looked around before also raising her own right hand. I stared at her fuchsia pink fake fingernails when she did. She was no different than the rest of us, I thought.
The day that the announcement was made that Tara was dead Mrs. Humphries stood up and talked to us more than she had. She talked to us like she was one of us and tried to make us realize that this type of life was not the American standard. She told us that this type of life was one that we did not have to live and explained our options, telling us that our opportunities were endless. Many of the guys in the class that were gang members cried and when she asked Tye why he cried, he said that it was because there was no way out and that this was his life.
Mrs. Humphries walked over to him and consoled him, promising him that he had options. She told him that he could come and talk to her or any of the other teachers to discuss what those options were. Whether he believed her or not was unknown. When I passed him in the street months later while he was guarding his corner, he did not look at me. From under his blue baseball cap I saw a look in his eyes that I had never seen before, one that was lost and that showed that he was not looking to be found.
The night after Tara’s death her murder was discussed on the news for all of twenty seconds. Her name was never mentioned by the broadcasters again. I swore never to forget her though. I felt like she was part of the reason that I never joined a gang or hung out with gang members. There were several times that I remembered Tara’s smile and her encouraging words. Usually it was when I sat at my desk in homeroom. There were many times that I looked over at her empty seat and remembered her hands, neatly folded on her desk, waiting for the bell to ring.
I thought of her many times and smiled at where I imagined that she would have been standing when I walked across the stage at my high school graduation. If she was still here, she would’ve been giving that speech, not Monique. Then again if she hadn’t died I wondered if any of us would have had the inspiration to make it this far.