My students had just finished their final rehearsal for our Spring Spoken Word Showcase. It was around on Monday, May 5. Checking e-mails, I saw “Sad News” in one heading-something that always brings pause. I learned that Ishma Stewart had been killed. Shot four times in a parked car at age 20. I broke down crying like I did years ago at my grandfather’s funeral when it took me a moment to realize the sobs I was hearing were coming from me.
For high school teachers, springtime is always a bit emotional and bittersweet. Like our students, we count the days to summer break. We need it to rejuvenate and reinvigorate for our next set of students. On the other hand, a whole set of seniors graduate and don’t come back, except for the occasional visit. Besides a summer spent regaining energy, the hope of what will become of our students as they move onward and upward is what keeps us coming back in spite of the grind that teaching can be.
After seven years as a traditional high school English teacher and two years developing Spoken Word projects in the lowest performing schools in London, England, I returned in 2003 to Oak Park and River Forest High School in a unique role that allows me to infuse poetry and black literature throughout our curriculum.
I got to work with Ishma Stewart in my new role during her sophomore and junior years. I taught her poetry several times and was extremely impressed with the quality of her writing and the honesty of it. I was also fortunate enough to teach a three-week unit on Toni Morrison’s novel Sula to Ishma’s American Literature class.
Her class was fairly apathetic, but Ishma was an absolute joy to teach. She loved the novel and wasn’t afraid to admit it to the class. She came up with insight after insight and made me look forward to teaching her class. In the end, her passion for learning became somewhat contagious, and she was able to cajole some of her reticent classmates to come around. Ishma went on to graduate from OPRF in 2005 in only three years. I don’t recall another student I’ve worked with accomplishing that feat.
I am the co-sponsor of our Spoken Word Club. We put on three “showcases” a year comprised of group pieces of students’ original writing. Ishma only participated in one showcase, but as with everything else she did, she wholeheartedly threw herself into it. She told me she loved doing it, but simply didn’t have time for after-school clubs, so it was her only show. She was determined to move forward quickly, which meant an over-booked schedule of classes and work. We recently dedicated our Spring Showcase in her memory. I asked her three group-mates from the February 2005 showcase to say a few words about her. They spoke of her dedication, excitement and nervousness to do well; of all the responsibilities she had to juggle in order to participate; and of her perennial smile.
I only heard about Ishma through her friends during the two years she attended college in Alabama. But this past July 3, I ran into her in Grant Park at the fireworks. She enthusiastically told me about recently finding the “chapbook” from her Spoken Word showcase. She told me how much she loved the Sula unit, and that she was excited about studying journalism at Loyola. I gave her my card and a hug goodbye, and walked off feeling blessed to be a teacher.
In the early 1990s, prior to teaching, I was a social worker in Chicago. In 1992 there were over 900 murders there. One kid in our program was a victim. Another was a culprit. It was a tough time to be hopeful.
I’ve also taught my share of tough kids. With them, I brace myself for bad news while hoping for the best. With Ishma, I only anticipated success. The circumstances of her death are so shocking and senseless that I know there’s nothing I could have said or done to have prevented it. I’m left wondering if she would have called me as she looked for work, if I would have been able to put her in contact with Dawn Turner Trice or with a former student who writes for ESPN.
We can’t go back in time and have Ishma avoid 48th and Indiana, the Sunday night of her death. Nor can we afford to let her killing be another headline that fades away. If we don’t figure out how to replenish hope in Chicago‘s young people, another person will choose to shoot into a parked car. As a teacher, I’ve learned that getting students to see a hopeful future to invest in is the best way to engage the toughest kids. We need to figure out how to do this broadly, or prison visits and funerals for young people will continue to be a part of the fabric of our lives.
As hopeful as I felt when I saw Ishma this summer-hopeful for her future; the many people she would positively impact; her example of hard work, talent and determination that I could point to for future students-I’m now dejected from the loss of her potential. If a student involved in gangs is killed, tragic as it is, at least the death can be used as a cautionary tale to help others from heading down that path. What lesson can be taught from Ishma’s death?