by Cassiette West-Williams
NNPA Special Contributor
(Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a front-page story on homicides in Chicago, a story that began by recounting the day Sherman Miller, 21, was shot to death on the steps of St. Columbanus Catholic Church while attending the funeral of another man who had been murdered. That story prompted this article, written by a Chicago Golden Apple teacher who offers another portrait of Black Chicago).
Darrien Boone almost became a murder statistic a year ago at the age of 17. A car pulled-up as he was walking and the driver pointed a gun towards him and threatened to kill him over a female classmate. Standing alone, Boone talked fast, explaining that he did not know the young lady in question and, more importantly, that he valued his life.
For some reason, the would-be shooter spared Boone’s life. Instead of being another cold, murder casualty, Boone, a recent graduate at Chicago’s Hales Franciscan High School, enrolled in college on Monday, Jan. 7.
In many neighborhoods, that wouldn’t be considered a big deal. But where Boone lived isn’t just any neighborhood. It is in one the roughest areas of the city, on the edge of the south side Pullman and Roseland neighborhoods. Boone quietly used education and sports as his tools to escape the violence all around him. His hometown may be divided and devalues young people of color, but educated brothers such as Boone use the adversity as fuel to excel and achieve, despite the overwhelming odds.
Boone, a scholar-athlete, who completed his academic career at Hales with a 4.6 grade point average, reflected on his past.
“I looked to my left, and then to my right, and everybody I was walking home from school with took off running,” Boone said. “I just went to my neighborhood Chicago Public School school (Fenger) and I didn’t know that the school had a bad name and I was stuck in a situation,” he said. Boone transferred a year ago to Hales, an inner city, African American, secondary male institution now celebrating its 50th year. Because of eligibility questions, he was not allowed to play football at his new school.
Like most Catholic schools in the ‘hood, the staff is non-union, extremely small, financially struggling, filled with high expectations, and Hail Mary dreams. Old school football Coach Randall Townsel makes his rounds to classrooms to review and discuss grade reports and listen to feedback on students, while the new school principal, Erica Brownfield, explains common core standards and uniform policies to parents. The days are far from perfect, but Boone and students like him, make the teaching profession respectable, even desirable, when education is not taken for granted.
The youngest of seven siblings, Boone said attending Central Michigan State, a Division I school in Mount Pleasant, Mich., will add another dimension to his life. As his parents prepare to pull off at 5 o’clock one Friday morning for freshmen orientation , Boone is reflective.
“I didn’t give-up when I could not play football. I did not give up when people put me down. They assumed that because I was from Fenger that I was slow. I didn’t fold. I held on and kept on my business. I believed that if I stayed quiet, my blessing was coming,” he said.
Indeed, it is very rare to have a true scholar like Boone in my class. He was a transfer student and a leader who completed his final semester with the highest grade point average in his class. He challenged me daily to prepare him for college. Boone had a sense of urgency in his demand for a quality education off the football field and agreed to arrive at Hales at 6:30 a.m. for small group tutoring.
He returned before 11:35 a.m. with typed, rough drafts, sang bass as a Hales’ Temptation for the Christmas program, and was always prepared for ninth period class. In August, we worked out a creative, lay-away plan to purchase his own copy of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Boone’s Canterbury Tales costume was made from football leggings and items from around the house. I believe even Medieval author Geoffrey Chaucer would have chuckled at this original pilgrim’s journey for excellence.
And while he credits his parents, Clifford and Beverly Boone, for grounding him with faith and principles, young Boone says it was his spiritual training that kept him alive. We begin every English class with a student-led prayer and scripture, reading from what I believe is the greatest book in the world, the Bible. We also acknowledge our Muslim students by having them share with their readings from the Qu-ran. The shared readings sets the tone for the class and allows us to learn in a spirit filled environment. Boone always had his Black, leather Bible in class and volunteered daily to read the word of God with his colleagues. He was not going through the motions to earn points for fluency and comprehension; Boone wanted to discuss God’s word and how it had changed his life.
“A lot of kids don’t get the chance to do what I am doing. My parents’ want me to earn a college education, but we don’t have the money to pay for it. God tested me and I believed in him for his promises,” said Boone.
Glenn Morris, who directs the Title One program at Hales, surprised the quarterback with cake and ice cream during finals week, and praised Boone for lifting the bar for other students. Morris expressed pride in knowing that Boone did not become another Chicago teen homicide statistic –like the ones written about in the New York Times. His legacy will endure forever. In fact, because of his accomplishments, other Black males say they too, want to attend college.
As I hold my breath and count down the hours until the car pulls off from his neighborhood, I kneel on my knees and thank God for His promises. There are so many teachers – in public, charter, Catholic, and private schools – who are dedicated to reaching our children.
And support has come from outside the education community. For example, Alpha Phi Alpha President Philip Kelly spent his holiday vacation without pay working with students at his high school. Fortune 500 Businessman Cornel Benford donates business suits, dress shoes and sponsors pizza parties for the best classes. U.S. Army Captain Marcelus Abdul-Qamara makes time to speak to Hale’s men about worldwide travel and the importance of earning a degree.
For every child who has been murdered –and there have been far too many – I see students, teachers and business leader eager to usher a teenager away from gun violence. Their service does not make the headlines, but it is countering gun violence one mind at a time.