In Oakland, Calif., there are a lot of homicides especially for a fairly small city of about 400,000 people. Last July, there were seven homicides in seven days. Victims ranged in age from 15 to 84. Six of them occurred near the school where I taught. One was a friend of many of my former students and a cousin of a little girl I mentor.
Friends of the victim memorialized him on Facebook. Some talked about wanting to leave Oakland because of the violence. My 9-year-old mentee said that while her cousin was killed, she had no feelings about it and didn’t want to talk about it, ever.
I’ve seen a lot of young people grieve losses and traumas.
I’ve learned a lot since I started teaching in Oakland 13 years ago, but I still do not know how to most effectively deal with these situations. I have compassion. My heart breaks every time, but it’s impossible to make things better or guarantee it will never happen again. All I can do is be present, listen, and give hugs if wanted. Although there have been far too many incidents to remember, a few stand out.
In my second year of teaching, a third-grader saw her cousin shot in the face by a rival gang member. My student came to school the next day. Her body shook uncontrollably and I didn’t know what to do except to let her write and draw and talk to me when she wanted. There were no funds for a counselor at the school.
Two years later, the father of one of my students was stabbed to death in his apartment. The student, again, came to school the next day. When I tried to get help on how to deal with it, the administrator pointed out that at least the student hadn’t lived with his father—as if this lessened the trauma. The student never mentioned his father’s death.
Another year passed, in class we were reading a humorous story about a cowboy who owed some debt collectors and got out of paying the debt by playing dead and scaring the debt collectors in the graveyard. We worked to connect readings to real life. One of my students told me about his uncle, who was killed by someone trying to collect on a debt.
Some of these kids could speak about trauma without appearing to have any emotions. Others broke down hysterically. I still grieve when a kid loses someone to a violent death. At some point, it might be easy to get jaded and think that it’s just something that happens in certain areas. It’s a tragedy every time and doesn’t make sense. As teachers, we can be a pillar of support and stay consistent when the world does not seem to make sense. We can be someone who students can talk to when everyone else in their life is confused and angry, and we can grieve alongside them.
Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.