Monday, November 16, 2009

A violent way of life

In September, a student at Fenger Academy High School in Chicago was beaten to death. Why am I writing about this now? Well, I used to teach at Fenger. And it's taken me this long to figure out what I want to say about it.

The year after I left Fenger, I wrote a personal essay combining some of my most horrific stories about the school. It was called Silence. The students who attend Fenger, many of whom are intelligent, ambitious and wonderful people, have no voice. The adults who know Fenger best, the teachers, other staff members, principals and parents, don't know what to say. The problems at Fenger are deeply rooted in poverty, the Roseland neighborhood, racism, drugs, alcohol, white flight, public housing, etc etc etc. There are no easy answers. After working at Fenger for two years, I'm not sure there are any answers.

The Chicago Tribune and other Chicago news sources have printed volumes on Derrion Albert's death, and the public shock has been immense. President Obama has arranged for his staff members to visit with Chicago Public School officials to discuss how to prevent this violence. But what many people don't understand is that this incident is not surprising. Fenger has one of the highest arrest rates in Chicago Public Schools. Fenger makes the news at least once a year for acts of violence. Last year (or was it longer ago?) a kid was beaten and then locked in a wire cage in the gym. One of my colleagues left after a gun was pulled on him. The only reason this incident is different is because it was caught on film and broadcast to thousands of people whom had never seen anything like it before.

Chicago Public Schools' immediate answer to the problem has been to increase security guards and police officers at the school. While this might prevent some violence, this "solution" is horrific. Imagine if a student were killed in a suburban school or an independent school. The school would invite hordes of counselors to talk to the students, to make sense of the random violence. But Fenger only gets more guards and police.

That's why I was pleased to see an article in the Chicago Tribune Sunday morning reporting that the organization CeaseFire had met with a group of Fenger students. According to the article, "The group [CeaseFire] sees violence as a learned behavior that has become acceptable in certain pockets of the city -- a learned behavior that can be un-learned."

CeaseFire has had tremendous success in areas like Roseland and I'm so glad to hear they are now working with Fenger students.

Violence is certainly a way of life at Fenger. Because I was an English teacher, so many of the stories I remember from Fenger revolve around literature. Here is one:

In my sophomore American Literature class, I taught TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. Remember that seminal scene where the angry mob surrounds Atticus? Everything comes to a head when a man spits in Atticus' face. Atticus refuses to attack him. The situation is saved by the appearance of Atticus' daughter, who in her naivete and youth breaks up an ugly situation. My students were horrified by this scene. They had developed a grudging respect for Atticus, but now saw him as a coward, a complete wuss. I was horrified by my students. Surely Atticus was heroic by not giving in to violence? My students informed me he wouldn't last a minute in Roseland. They're probably right. They told me if someone spits in your face, you had better fight back, otherwise you develop a reputation for weakness. Doesn't it take more bravery, then, not to fight back? Maybe, they agreed, but what would be the point? In their community, it's a valid question.

My best wishes to CeaseFire and to all the students at Fenger. After two years, I chose to leave. I'm always aware my former students, and Fenger's current students, have no such choice.


  1. I think about incidents like this a lot. I don't have answers, but it sounds like the CeaseFire group is heading in the right direction. My heart breaks that children grow up like this, with no hope, believing that violence is the answer to violence. Bless you for caring - and, you are my hero for working in a school like that. How hard it must have been. *hugs* Julia from Verla's.

  2. Thanks, Julia! *hugs* back!
    I wish I could be more of a hero; I very much felt like I abandoned the school after only being there two years, but personally I couldn't take its despair and anger anymore. The real heroes are the teachers who are still there (though there aren't many), and go in every day and do the best job they can.
    Knowing children deal with situations like this breaks my heart, too. How much better they deserve!

  3. I taught in Chicago too, and all the news this summer broke my heart for those kids. I think your point about increased security vs. counselors is so, so wise.

  4. Thanks, Jacqui. I think in all the hype about the violence, people forget the students at Fenger are just kids.

  5. Marvelous post, Anne. Thanks for your insight.


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