After eight years of RICH's existence, Garey Gordon was the first student of mine to die suddenly. As you can read here, his death was unnecessary.
Although Garey's death does not haunt me, I often ask why he died. I think first of the facts:
1. He was an 18-year old tenth grader at Anacostia High School who just barely passed geometry in the fall semester. I had called his house in January to try to get him to do more geometry work to get his grade up to a C. He seemed willing to meet me at the library to do this if he could get a ride from his uncle, but he did not show up.
2. Garey stopped coming to school in February. During this time, we at RICH met several times with the attendance counselor at the high school and other neighborhood groups to brainstorm on how to get more students to come to school. The best tactic we came up with was home visits by teachers on Friday afternoons.
3. Garey was not the only truant. By January, fewer than 60% of the students at the Matthew Henson Academy, the subset of Anacostia that he attended, were coming to school on an average day. School-wide, there are approximately 200 students who have stopped coming to school on a regular basis.
4. On February 25, about a dozen families had meaningful visits from teachers. Other families were not home. About half of those students started coming back to school. Not a huge number, but a start.
Garey was on my list, but I did not get around to visiting him and his mom. There are a lot of students whose parents I would like to meet to either tell them how smart their child is or tell them that their child has not been coming to school. Time and money constrain me and RICH from visiting everyone we would like. Most of the phone numbers we have for these students are inaccurate.
The word on the street is that Garey had eight friends at home at the time of the shooting, that there was an argument about shoes, that he was shot in the back, that he was propped up against a window to make it look like a drive-by before someone called 911. He was shot by his girl friend's friend.
For the younger teachers, some who are less than half my age of 53, Garey's death was difficult to handle. It is hard for them to fathom the massive financial and intellectual poverty in their students' community, and hard to appreciate the incremental progress that they are making with their students. I like to tell them they are moving the ball slowly down the field, that they are building great relationships with the students who do come to school, but it is hard for them not to think of the negative outcomes they see.
Garey needed almost daily mentoring. I did not know him well, but there is a reason most students stop coming to school. They might be depressed; they might have to take care of a relative; they might not have any clean clothes; they might have an addiction. The other 199 truant students at Anacostia also need constant mentoring. Multiply this number by approximately 20, and you have, citywide, a rough number of students who are close to the edge of dropping out.
What happens to these dropouts? The American Youth Policy Forum, in documents such as this , tell a grim story. Half become incarcerated by age 35. Deaths such as Garey's are not uncommon.
Is RICH helping? Yes, and that is what keeps me going. It is a tremendous challenge to try to figure out how to best use our time and resources. We are at war on this poverty, forty-plus years after LBJ popularized the phrase.
Another boy, whose initials are PH, is back in school because of our intervention. When we visited his home, we found out his mom had not paid the water bill. No water means no clean clothes, and while some students do not mind wearing the same pair of pants two weeks in a row, not every boy will do this. Now, every time I see PH in school, I smile and punch him in his stomach, gently.