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A Shooting at Dorchester High School

by Jeff Lowenstein

The author of this essay, Jeff Lowenstein writes: "I am writing about a shooting at Dorchester High School. Located in Boston's inner city, the school has a student body that is predominantly of color, and faces many challenges in its efforts to provide its students a high quality education. In this piece I describe the interactions I saw in the aftermath of the shooting, and offer my thoughts about the event. I work at the school one day each week through my position as a Program Associate at "Facing History and Ourselves", a non-profit professional development and curriculum organization. "Facing History and Ourselves" engages middle and high school teachers, students and administrators in examining the moral consequences of their choices by reflecting on themselves, the past, and the connections between these two things."

“There has been a shooting within the past hour at Dorchester High School” Bob Oakes’ soothing voice intoned on my car radio as I pulled into the Dorchester High School parking lot. A wave of Boston Police officers, in shiny blue uniforms and orange vests, stood near the side of the school.

The next hour brought a flurry of activity and sounds: an irate Latina parent asking, “Who’s this chick?” as she pointed a derisive thumb at a white secretary. “I want my son.” The mother declared. “I’m taking him out of here. I’m sick of this shit, kids getting shot every week.” A weepy black girl sitting silently on the bench in the front office, then exploding, “Get away from me. Get the hell away from me!” at a white administrator who wanted her to move. The despairing tone of a veteran teacher talking about taking his sick days and not returning to the school. “We’re tired, Jeff.” He said, leaning back in the chair in the cramped classroom where he teaches English to more than thirty five twelfth graders. “It’s not like we’re twenty anymore.” The disembodied voice of the beleagured but valiant headmaster projecting through the public address system, listing all the people - Mayor, Superintendent of schools, Chief of Police, counselors, priests, streetworkers - who had come to the school. If anything, he said, the school is “oversafe”. He urged them to go to class and to continue the business of getting their education. And the black, Latino and Asian students who make up the vast majority of the school’s population complied after the bell rang, greeting and hugging each other in a more subdued fashion than usual, but proceeding to their next class.

I made my way to the school’s satellite building for my meeting with four ninth grade English teachers. We convene weekly to discuss triumphs and setbacks, to swap strategies and to share resources. They assembled slowly this day: we had just started talking when we learned that a fire alarm had been pulled, a regular occurrence the past few weeks. I went outside and bumped into Mr. Georges. A Haitian emigree and one of the school’s bi-lingual teachers, he had taught in Zaire for many years before coming to the United States.

“This is ridiculous.” He spat with barely choked fury as we walked toward the school’s main campus. "Jean!” he yelled to one of his students, who wheeled around. “N’allez pas labas.” (Don’t go there). The boy immediately moved to the side of the road. He waved his hand in disgust at the rest of the students who had gathered outside the red brick building and were milling around quietly while television cameras and newspaper photographers documented the day’s events. I looked at the students and reflected that within the past twelve hours they had learned that the murdered body of one of their fourteen year old, eight month pregnant friends had been found, had stood outside school when another one of their contemporaries had been shot in the leg, and now had had their third period interrupted by this fire alarm. The word came that we were to reenter the building. I returned to the satellite.

The English teachers sat in front of me, their pinched faces revealing an inner strain that their neatly folded legs and immaculate posture masked. I felt a sickening thud as I acknowledged that the morning had been difficult, passed out a two page excerpt from Esmerelda Santiago’s “When I Was Puerto Rican” that we had discussed the previous week, and asked how they were doing. First year teacher Audrey Schindler had contracted larangytis. “Pass.” She said hoarsely, her eyes welling up with tears. “Go on to someone else.” Dorchester born and bred Mary Grady, another rookie teacher, shared that she had been crying first period because she had attempted to give a student who had thrown his book bag out of the window an in-school suspension, only to discover that the school has no such policy. ”I’m so anxious that when they ask me about a question about the test, I just tell them, Look at the directions.”

Literacy Coordinator Sharon Abraham changed the discussion’s focus. “I’m scrambling to plan my next class because I’ve got two hours with the kids, I know that this is going to come up, and I don’t know what to do.” I felt hollow as we talked about the balance between giving students a space to express their feelings and the necessity to try to maintain a semblance of normality, a balance that sounded workable within the confines of a teacher meeting, but which proved much harder to realize in a classroom of thirty scared and angry fourteen year olds.

Paula DiCamillo spoke. A fourth year teacher who struggled mightily last year, she has served as the group’s anchor the past two months. “I started fourth period with this journal topic: Write about a time that you persisted even though there were obstacles, when you stuck with it, when persistence paid off. What were the qualities that helped you - - persistence, discipline.” The teachers’ faces lit just slightly, as if they had been given an unexpected gift. The bell rang and our group trooped off to the day’s last two hours.

I saw English teacher Allison Skerret before I left. She sat in the hallway guarding a fire alarm box, a white strobe light still flashing and animating the word “Fire” from the previous period. She told me that even her most dedicated students had boycotted her efforts to teach after the shooting, glaring at her behind raised newspapers as she attempted to conduct the lesson. I made an appointment with her for the next week.

“Until further notice, you can find me out here during fourth period.” She said, an ironic grin crossing her face. I smiled back and exited the building, which more closely resembled an occupied military zone than a place of learning.

I started crying in my car. I cried for the obscenity of a society that allows these kids’ school experience to be so much worse than the children born in more privileged communities. I thought about the responsibility held by the parents, teachers, and administrators, about the students who know the alarm pullers’ identity and say nothing -- and I cried because the problems seemed so much larger than any one groups’ ability to solve them. I cried for the students who will be held accountable for standards they have had no real chance to achieve, for their limited future options in a time of unprecedented economic prosperity. But mostly I cried for the huge hearts of the overtaxed and undersupported teachers who want to help the kids use their education as a means to live a dignfied and fulfilled life, who encounter obstacles at every turn, and for whom I had nothing but a sympathetic ear, a circle of sharing, and a two sided piece of paper about Guava. I knew that my feelings would change, that I would heed my Appalachian mentor Becky Simpson’s words, and rest and try again. And, at that moment, I felt as if I was standing in front of a boulder whose direction, I could, using all my strength, move ever so slightly, but which could just as easily roll on unimpeded, flattening everything in its path. I dried my tears and drove back to the office in Brookline.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 27, 2000.