I taught in Oakland for eight years, in the part of Oakland that everybody knows, the part that gives Oakland its bad reputation. I had many students who faced violence, poverty, and neglect that no child should have to face.
One student who wormed his way into my heart more than most was Fred. Fred was in the first-grade class I taught at East Oakland Elementary during my first year of teaching. He taught me, in a visceral way, the pain and tragedy of a talented, wounded black boy colliding with a system that has limited tolerance for disobedience and too few avenues of help and support.
Our relationship got off to a rocky start. Fred’s class had had six substitutes before I arrived in January 2000. Within the first ten minutes of my first day of class, he threw a book at my head and I had to send him home. That volatility was never far from the surface. He was so angry that it all but oozed out of his pores, even when he was only six years old.
But sometimes this child, who was known around school as a terror, would curl into a ball and sob uncontrollably because he didn’t know how to deal with all of his feelings. I taught him the word “frustrated,” and when he’d get mad, sometimes he’d still act out and scream, “I . . . am . . . so . . . frustrated!”
Fred left our school in second grade, reputedly for hitting a teacher. I believe he was expelled, but it may have just been a “push-out,” where the administration “encouraged” his mom to send him to another school. In third grade he came back to our school, and I, now a third-grade teacher, agreed to take him in, because I thought I was his best chance for success—since I actually wanted him there.
One day, when Fred was in my third grade class, he threw a tantrum that was more self-directed than usual. He flailed on the floor and yelled “I hate myself. I’m no good,” crumpled paper, and knocked things over. It was after school, so I let him bluster for a while. Finally, I said, “Fred, we’re going to make a list of things that are good about you.” He froze. I got on the computer and started typing.
I had no help from Fred at all. He alternately screamed and flailed on the floor (and this wasn’t just a temper tantrum; it was obvious that he was in serious emotional pain). But soon he was curious enough to come look at what I was writing. Although I no longer have a copy of the list, I suspect I included things such as “He is a great reader” and “He always respects me.” I finished typing and told Fred that I was printing two copies, one for me and one for him, so that we could each remember some good things about him. I told him that these weren’t all the good things about him, because that would take way too long. These were just the first ten of many.
I printed Fred’s copy and he said, “I don’t want your stupid list. There ain’t no good things about me!” He crumpled it up and threw it in the empty garbage can. I told him that was fine; he could do whatever he wanted with it. I said that I was keeping mine to remind me of some of the great things about him. He kept repeating that he didn’t want “no stupid list.” I think he really wanted me to react angrily to justify his own anger, but I stayed calm. He stormed out.
I resumed my work on the computer and heard the door open and someone rustling in the garbage can. When I turned back around, Fred’s backpack disappeared though the door. The garbage can was empty again.
A decade later, Rosa, one of Fred’s classmates at East Oakland Elementary, was volunteering at the organization I worked for, about to return for her senior year at UCLA, when she came into my office one day in 2015 looking downcast. “Ms. Harris,” she said, “Do you know Fred’s last name?”
I knew immediately what Rosa was going to say. There weren’t a lot of reasons that she would have brought up Fred. And honestly, this was a likely outcome for him. But more than that, I just knew. I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach as she told me that Fred had been shot and killed that week in East Oakland. I wasn’t surprised, but I was still heartbroken.
Rosa showed me a brief news article about a young man who’d been killed, confirming what I already knew in my gut: the young man was Fred. I’m grateful to her for the kindness of telling me herself, sparing me the shock of finding out about his death on the news. She knows how much I love “my kids,” even once they’re grown.
I have since heard from a reputable source that at that time, Fred was trying to get out of the gang life, and that he had started going to job training not long before he was gunned down. I don’t know if this was true, or even if it matters. No one deserves to die violently. I knew and loved this child, who barely got to become a young man. I saw the potential he had and how much he wanted to be something other than what he was.
It breaks my heart that he couldn’t get out of this life before the violence caught up with him.
Losing a student to violence is unimaginable, even when this much time has passed. You second-guess yourself and wonder what else you could have done. As an adult, I’m sure Fred realized that the world, in many ways, is even more unfair than he imagined it to be as a child. But I hope he also knew, somehow, that there were still people who believed in him and believed that he was more than the sum total of his anger.
Kids who grow up in places like East Oakland are too often viewed as a burden on society, the costs we bear for incarceration and violence.
They are worth so much more than that.
Getting to them sooner, with real alternatives, and proving their value to themselves and the greater world around them are the first steps. Even Fred, who had incredible disadvantages in where he was born and in his early family and school life, who made bad decisions and paid for them, was able to redeem himself and start on a different path. And yet he still wound up dead, as do so many of his black and brown brothers who never make it out of the vortex of violence swirling around our prisons and inner city neighborhoods.
This tragic reality and the lives it continues to destroy break my heart, and yet the challenge remains clear. We must remake our society to keep kids like Fred from choosing the wrong path, and we must help them to successfully pursue redemption even when they do.