Five years ago today, June 13, 2011, Jovany Diaz was murdered in the early hours of his 15th birthday. He was a student of mine. Today, he would be turning 20.
That day, his fifteen birthday, the day he was killed, was the most polar day of my teaching career, and a day I’ll never forget.
I walked in to Amundsen High School that morning more excited than I’d ever been as a teacher. The previous evening, I’d received the first copy of The McViking, a literary magazine the writing club I was the sponsor of had published. The book was amazing, better than I could have hoped for. I sent a copy to the writers David James Duncan and Jess Walter. Both got back to me; both told me it was a good read. The book was powerful. The content ranged from Cheesy Snow Poems to Letters to God.
I was set to deliver the books to my student editors, two girls that are awesome and I have the utmost respect for; they worked hard, were dedicated and talented. When I gave the book to one, she shrieked and danced, too excited for words. The other wrote a reflection saying, “now anything is possible”.
At Amundsen, much like the students, teachers had lockers. I was at mine when a coworker came up and told me Jovany had been shot. He said it like this: “Have you heard about Jovany?”
“No,” I said. “What?”
“He was shot last night,” he told me, “he’s dead.”
I walked to the school library and sat at a table alone, just me and the news. I stared down for 45-minutes, in a silent lament. A coworker graciously asked me if I wanted to talk or be alone. Alone, I responded.
I’m not able to instantly react to things, especially tragedy. So in addition to my own grief and sorrow, I knew that I’d have to address his class and classmates later that day; earlier in the year, a different student had been shot, and I wasn’t happy with how the school handled the news. I hadn’t know that kid, but I did know Jovany, and therefore wanted to give the situation, and thereby his person, the respect and importance the situation deserved. The students deserved that.
One way I try to relate to students is by writing each one a birthday card. Nothing too major, just a little way to say: I see you, you’re important. I slip it on their desk at some point during class. In my bag was Jovany’s. I mulled the card over. I had to think of something to say when I addressed the class of fifteen students had been together for the school year.
The class Jovany was a student in was a freshman writing class; the class was small in size, so I got to know the students pretty well. If I’m honest, the class was really Jovany’s. The rest of the students liked and respected him more than they liked and respected me, and he’d entertain them in some way every single day. This isn’t that hard to believe. The young man was magnanimous. He was funny, too.
His favorite method of entertaining the class was creating some combo of insults, typically directed at me; the combo always ending with ‘head wearing ass’. This combo may not make too much sense to adults, but it sure does make kids laugh. So he’d walk in class, usually late, look at me when I asked for a pass, and say something like, “I don’t got no pass for your tight clothes, baby pants, stripe shirt head wearin’ ass; or, ‘look at your surfer hair, spiked hair, just-got-outta-bed-head lookin’ ass’.
And it was funny. I had no response other than to laugh, and it put the class in a calm mood.
That was the effect the young man had. He was popular among all age levels, himself in most situations - which is rare for a high school student, particularly a freshman. While he was able to be himself, he also wasn’t above those around him. Which is why people liked him.
Kids like routine, especially in tragedy. So they walked in quietly, sat down and looked at each other. But then they looked at me. There was a vulnerability that was palpable. It was like the room and only the room existed. Jovany’s seat and the void of his body was tangible.
The bell rang. The kids looked at me for guidance. Unable, as of then, to ask why, they were looking for direction. I had them get in a circle, and we talked.
We talked about life and death, love and fear, insecurity and instability. I allowed each student to share how they were feeling in the immediate moment, saying no content or language was off limits: if you feel it, it’s fine.
Kids shared a lot. We talked about how crazy it is that someone can be here one day and gone the next. We talked about how scary it is that we too will die some day. We talked of how we felt when other people we knew had died. And then we talked about Jovany. We went around the circle, popcorn style, sharing what we liked about him and how he made us laughed. There were tears and disbelief, but we cared deeply and shared more authentically than any class I’ve been a part of.
When the class ended, we hugged and thanked one another, but two students lingered. They stood huddled together, shoulders nearly touching, looking at me sad and scared. I put an arm around each of them and hugged them tightly. They began to sob. One’s body began to shake convulsively, her tears covered my shoulder.
That day changed me and the way I teach. Jovany is just one example of a plethora of young people taken way too early by violence - and for the record: fuck the violence – but the story on him wasn’t yet written. The thing that makes it hard is that he could have gone either way. He was so close to the edges of both trouble and triumph that he could have gone on to drop out, or he could have gone on to receive a full scholarship.
Many kids like Jovany face very adult situations and have to deal with harsh realities of life much younger than most of America. Because of this, there’s a lot of pressure, and that pressure can get to kids. Jovany knew that pressure well.
At the end of a school year, I have kids write a reflection on the year – basically a journal from them to me. Jovany’s addressed that tension. He talked about making changes as a man, of doing the right thing, of turning it around and putting his all into school and sports. He thanked me in that letter, thanked me for teaching and being patient. But - in his typical fashion - he also made sure to suggest that I start “sagging” (my pants).
As a teacher, especially in regards to students like Jovany, there is a lot of theory as to how to reach them: do you cuss the kid out? Motivate through challenge? Tell them they can’t, so that they do? Do you treat them with love? Give them unconditional support? Unlimited chances?
I used many methods with Jovany, and (truthfully) was tempted with a few of the negatives. But, I never did. I chose to believe in him. And he saw that and thanked me at the end of the year.
So as I processed his death, his person, and his impact, one thing that I am eternally grateful for is that I did not say negative things to him about his own self, glad I’d never made a negative blanket statement about him. Glad I treated him how he chose to present himself on any given day. I’m glad I looked at the positive. There are no blanket statements about kids. Nothing is set in stone. They have potential for greatness, all of them.
Jovany’s story was cut way too short, but his impact will remain. His life and death changed me as a teacher. His memory lives on, and his impact upon will always remain.
Rest in peace, young man. Rest in peace.