Six bullets and what do I do with the uncorrected essays beside me? The six bullets killed the author, 18-year-old Cedirick Steele, a student in the English 111, College Writing class I teach at Bunker Hill Community College.
One bullet to his chin, one to his neck, one to each arm, one to his stomach, and one to his left leg, his grandmother, Mahalia Steele, told me. “I had custody of him. I raised him,” she said. We were sitting on a couch in her Roxbury, Mass., living room. Len Mhlaba, Bunker Hill’s dean of arts and sciences, and I had gone to visit the family. We brought the tributes Cedirick’s classmates had written. “No one will tell me why he died,” Mrs. Steele said. She was sobbing. No one is talking -- no arrests, even now, weeks later. The shooting was deliberate.
Cedirick’s shooting was a one-day news story. Cedirick may have had a prior record. I don’t know. His life in our English 111 class, Mondays and Wednesdays at 8:30 a.m., was as real as whatever caused him to die on a sidewalk one afternoon. On my desk here, I have two papers, good ones, by Cedirick, and I will never hand them back to him. My favorite is a draft or two from being a sharp, sassy rebuff to a local newspaper op-ed about education.
For our first class, in January, I’d asked the students to write me a letter. What did they expect from me? The teaching point, I said, was to use writing to shape your own world. The expected replies: Being on time, correcting papers within this century, help whenever asked. Cedirick, though, wrote that he insisted that I “not disrespect him.” What had I done wrong already?
I was early for our second class, having coffee in the Bunker Hill lobby. Cedirick sat down at my tiny table. “Did I do something Monday to disrespect you?” I asked. He gave me his signature smile. “No, I was worried that you’d think that, so I came over to sit with you. I just want people to know who I am, that I say what I have to say.” Write on.
The first assignment was to describe a day, with details, from when the alarm goes off until arrival here in class. Cedirick included that he flossed every morning. “Hygiene is very important to me.” Cedirick did take care in his appearance. Neat, tight braids. White athletic jerseys that really were white. He wore a gold medallion. One day, he also wore a memorial button with a photo of a small child. “My cousin. She was shot,” he said.
That morning in Cedirick’s living room, Mrs. Steele gave us a button with a photo, in memory of Cedirick.
Word of the shooting came on e-mail. I was in a dark conference room in New York, testing my slides for a talk to a convention of college newspaper editors.
The e-mail was from the student who sat beside Cedirick every day. “I don't know if this is this is Cedric from class ... but it would be quite a coincidence that someone would have the exact same name.” It included the link to a newspaper account of the shooting.
Cedirick showed up for class, even on the days that should have been snow days. He spoke up. He helped his classmates. He often brought New York Times articles to class. We talked in the one class about the First Amendment and the right to petition to redress grievances. I said that we could write Governor Patrick, invite him to class, and tell him to improve student aid. Cedirick said that’s what he wanted to do. Cedirick was taking just two courses -- what he could afford -- and working at Meals on Wheels.
I e-mailed the news of Cedirick’s death to the class. We began the next class with a few moments of silence. I asked the students to open Word on the computers and to start writing. Keep their hands on the keyboard. Not for grades. I said I wanted to show them how to use writing to think through complicated situations. I’d planned 15 minutes, but no one stopped writing. I wrote, too.
Ten minutes before the end of class, we stopped and hit “Print.” I said that I was going to visit Cedirick’s family on Thursday. I would be happy to bring any of the writings along. Did anyone want to read theirs? I read mine first.
Here are two of theirs:
“The news of Cedirick Steele’s death came as a huge shock to me. Sitting in my apartment Friday night, I got the news. The many thoughts in my head at the moment are suddenly erased. Nothing, blank, my mind is empty, all the noise in the apartment and outside of my apartment are silenced.… Cedirick was a very outspoken and radiant person. The way he carried himself in class showed me that he was serious about his education. He had a constant hunger for knowledge and I respected him for that…. I walk into class to find some of my classmates in a circle. Then it hits me, a sort of emptiness in my stomach. Someone whose company I enjoyed very much is gone without a logical explanation.”
--John Around Him (reprinted with permission)
There’s no more
Blood encircling you on the floor
Hands of black
Take you back
No time to react only facts
I met you in my English 111 class
Sat to my right
Your uniqueness caught my eye
Now I look to my side and all I can do is sigh
I remember your face
It is engraved in my mind
Why do the good die young all of the time
I heard confidence in your voice
Saw promise in your eyes
I imagine what you could have been
If you had not been the one God chose to die
I do not know what to say
Or what I should do
I only wish it was not you.”
--Tracie Garay (reprinted with permission)
Last week, as a changeup, the class read “Fear and Loathing in the Bunker” by Hunter S. Thompson. The essay is about, well, you’ll need to read it yourself. Thompson refers to The Charge of The Light Brigade. The what? We Googled up Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and a student read the poem aloud. More shooting. “Cannons to the left of them…” Not to reason why, only do or die.
“Anyone know anyone who’s ridden into battle like that? Not to reason why. Do or die?” I asked. Silence.
“Well, how about your classmate John, here? Didn’t he drive a tank into Baghdad for we, the people?”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve been meaning to ask you,” one student said. “How did that feel?”
“I was scared shitless,” John said.
Did John have a say in whether to invade? No. Why was he in the Army, driving a tank into Baghdad?
“The Army was the only way I could get money to go to college,” he told us. John Around Him is a 24-year-old Oglala Sioux from South Dakota. The purpose of his education is to become a counselor in his high school to create a better life than he had as a student. Even with G.I. combat benefits, John can afford only part-time college and works 50 hours a week as a warehouse stock boy.
The college editors I was speaking to, when they arrived after I got the news about Cedirick, included two U.S. veterans from Afghanistan. Shot at to pay for school. With real financial aid in the U.S., would Cedirick even have been on the street that afternoon? In just one U.S. classroom, one student who wanted to be in school full time, dead. Another, an Iraq veteran, shot at to pay for college. Who speaks on behalf of these students for decent federal higher education aid?
Whose stories are these? Theirs or, maybe, ours? These students are in any of the 1,200 community colleges in the United States. No space now for the single mother taking one course, working full time, who feeds her daughter from food pantries and who earns too much for a Pell Grant. That’s federal policy, our policy.
So is the subsidy, via tax policy, of at least $30,000 per student at Williams and Yale, my schools. That’s three times the cost per student at a community college. We, the people, assent to this situation that some students have gyms built with tax-deducted dollars while other go to food pantries. Across Washington, in the Russell and the Rayburn buildings, K Street think tanks and DuPont Circle lobbies, no one seems to have a plan for Cedirick or the veterans or to moderate the tax-deducted Xanadus for Yale and Williams.
A new Bunker Hill semester begins in a few weeks. I’m sticking around. I’ll bring Cedirick’s button to the first class, and every first class from now on. We shall write on.
Wick Sloane’s column, The Devil’s Workshop, appears as needed. Next week, John Around Him will visit Dartmouth College, founded to educate Native Americans, thanks to help from Dartmouth President James Wright.