Archives for July 2014

Hurdle the Dead

“I think the kids will enjoy this,” says the delightful mom who’s picking out the cross country team sweatshirts. “What do you think?”

She’s right – the kids are going to love it. They’ll think it’s hilarious, and I know I would, too, if I were them.  The design is funny, but I gasp when I see it.hurdle the dead

Vanquish the weak. Hurdle the dead. Arrive triumphant.

The first glimpse carries me back to the school next door to my church.

It sits across the parking lot, and when I first start work, I walk over to say hello. Our security guard watches me intently as I make my way to the door and they buzz me in. The principal and I talk, and then he offers me a tour. The classrooms, the charts on the wall and the computer lab all look like every other school. The emphasis on college – everywhere – is different. College banners and posters hang in all the halls, and in the cafeteria. The only days off from school uniforms are the days when kids can wear college shirts. Where I live, in my leafy suburb, college is in the air, like oxygen. Kids breathe it in from birth. Here, it’s up to the school. Along with information, they’re teaching a vision of the future.

As we walk through the halls, past rows of pristine school lockers, I see one covered with layer after layer of paper. Lined notebook paper, with messages in black pen. Colored paper, with drawings. The papers cover every inch of the locker’s surface, and overlap onto the other lockers on each side. I stop and ask the principal about it.

“That’s the girl who was killed,” he says, as if I’ll know. I look at him quizzically, and then the story comes back to me. It was just more Detroit bad news, remote until now. Kade’jah Davis, killed when someone came to her home and fired shots through the door.  The police believe that her mother had a disagreement with someone about a cell phone, and they came back to have the last word with a gun.

“I let the students post messages to her on her locker,” the principal tells me. Once they were up, it was impossible to take them down, a daily reminder of violence and fragility. I wonder what it’s like for the students to be so aware of the limitations of adults to protect them. The banners in the hallways, the urging of the teachers, and the emphasis of the academics all say “college,” all day long. The locker is a silent witness to another reality.

A few days later I return to the school for their memorial service for Kade’jah.

The CEO introduces me to her mother, Ms. Talton, who seems stunned by grief, remote and spacey, as if she’s visiting from someplace else. Planet Grief? I know that place. Her blouse is dramatically low cut, revealing a tattoo in honor of her daughter that covers her chest. From the neckline down to her bra, and from collarbone to collarbone, the tattoo artist has drawn her daughter’s name in gothic script. Under the elegant, ruffled blouse, her body is another witness to grief, a living tombstone.

At the memorial service, the school secretary sings in a voice so high and clear that the school cafeteria is instantly transformed into a sacred space. The students do a hip-hop dance and sing along with a CD on a boom box.

When the service is over, the teachers and students go outside to plant a tree in Kade’jah’s honor, and I talk to her mother for a moment. Her other children come up, asking her a question, and I get a glimpse of their life with a mother so distracted by grief.

For the family, this is personal tragedy that loops on and on. For the kids in the school, it’s a daily reminder that their teachers’ message competes against another kind of future. They already know that people will shoot you over a phone – what will make the other vision just as strong?

I look around and see that many of them are wearing t-shirts with Kade’jah’s picture. All of them are slightly different, made at different times. Some have the date of her death, and R.I.P.. Some have a school picture, and others have snapshots of her smiling, sitting at a table, or with friends. Some show her in her school uniform and others in casual clothes. I realize that I’m seeing one of the rituals of grief in the city. Now that I know how to look, I see the shirts advertised everywhere – R.I.P. shirts, or Rest in Peace Shirts. Or, sometimes, more formally, “custom memorial shirts.” Free design help. Twenty-hour hour turnaround.

No one here is hurdling the dead. They carry her with them, wherever they go