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I found out this morning that one of my former students, Hakeem Witcher, probably shot and killed another boy on Friday.

I taught Hakeem and his sister. I knew their little sister. I knew their mother. I called her all the time. I spoke to her when she’d pick them up from school. I remember trying to help her when she asked what to do one night. She was overwhelmed enough to ask for help from some stupid first-year teacher who didn’t even have kids of his own.

After I left New Bridge, I saw his mom a few more times. She said Hakeem was up in New Jersey with his dad- that she just couldn’t control him. It didn’t sound good. At some point I saw Hakeem as well. I can’t recall exactly where or when now. He’d started to harden some, a hint of a mustache growing on his face, but that kid who really wanted to please was still there. He wanted to know why I left New Bridge. I probably said something about money. It’s an easy cop out.

I really just remember how much I liked Hakeem, how much I hope that there’s still that reachable core of good in him. I know there’s a poor boy who’s dead here and family that’s grieving for him. I know that. There’s also a boy who’s 18 and likely to go to jail for murder.

The thing is we’ve had a number of students killed and shot but it didn’t hit me quite like having one who might be the killer. Bad things can happen to good kids, but it’s much worse to think about that good kid, the one you knew you connected with, doing the one of worst things possible.

What’s sad is I don’t see much hope for change here. I don’t see our schools as being equipped to deal with this. I don’t see our government handling it. I don’t see myself doing anything that matters either.

Comments on this post

  1. Jim said on December 14, 2008 at 9:54 pm

    This is a hard post to read, and it must have been 1,000 times harder to write. What’s more, is that the article you point to is equally as depressing in its hopelessness. It’s crazy, just a kind of obligatory byline for a horrible reality, and I wonder if I would have thought twice about it had I read it without your context. This is should be filed under the “looking into the abyss” category as well as under lost.

    It sucks.

  2. Jenny said on December 14, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    I can’t imagine the emotions you are facing now. This post is beautifully written and captures an aspect of our culture and of education’s place in it astoundingly well. It is disheartening.

    I hope you will update information if you learn more. I’m with Jim, I think I would have only peripherally registered this story without your post and now I want to follow what happens.

  3. Erin M said on December 15, 2008 at 10:56 am

    I can even imagine what you are feeling in knowing that a child you cared for has probably committed such an unspeakable act. I have had students that I knew were gang members and may be headed down a similar path as Hakeem, but knew only to keep caring for the students and trying to educate and connect with them to try to keep away from the streets – even if for just a short while longer.

    I know nothing will be able to heal your heart from this, and there is nothing that can justify what has happened, but hopefully we can all keep this in our minds when trying to reach that next “difficult” child and will continue to keep reaching.

  4. Aaron B said on December 15, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    This is Aaron, I was in the same class with Hakeem in 6th grade when you were teaching. I found out just two days ago and me and Brent both find it crazy considering we known him since 3rd grade.

  5. Tom said on December 16, 2008 at 8:52 am

    Aaron-

    Good to hear from you. I hope you’re doing well. It’s been a long time. I’m glad to hear you’re still talking to Brent. You were both funny guys- if a little crazy at times. You certainly kept things interesting for me.

    If you know anyway I can get in touch with Hakeem’s mom or any of his family I’d appreciate it. You can email me at twwoodward@henrico.k12.va.us

    Let me know what’s going on with you and with Brent or anyone else you still keep in touch with.

  6. Fran said on December 16, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    Thank you for so beautifully and simply capturing the loss you feel. Point of view is everything, isn’t it? Each of us has certain students who have touched our lives in a special way and we will always care for them – kind of like the unconditional love a parent has for a child.

    Last school year, a group of students skipped school and went to one of their homes to get high and hang out. What must have begun as a carefree day soon became deadly when one student fatally shot another. I knew both the victim and the shooter and felt deeply saddened for both.

    Most teachers and students wanted to comfort each other over the loss of the girl’s life. I participated in memorial services for her and still and saddened over her loss. However, I also feel an indefinable sense of loss for the young man who ended her life. Two lives irrevocably changed – and because I knew both, I grieve for both.

  7. Brent said on December 16, 2008 at 8:50 pm

    Yeah the kid hakeem was like a brother to me at one point i knew him like my whole life i went to school with him up untill the 11th grade we were so close i never expecetd him to do somthing like that i mean we always used to laugh and joke on people and i didnt see this comming

  8. Michelle Bourgeois said on December 16, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    It hurts to lose a student to life as much as it hurts to lose one to death. The part that hurts the most is knowing that no matter how much you cared, or how hard you tried, the choice in the end was out of your hands.

    What you need to remember is that there are dozens of students who will go through life remembering the impact you had on them. Not to mention the teachers who will be a little better at reaching their students because of what they learned from you.

    You’re right that schools and governments aren’t equipped to fix this. The only thing that can is the committed work of people who care. Like you.

  9. Brent said on December 16, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    Oh yeah wats up mr. woodward Aaron told me about this. but foreal you were my coolest teacher. If every student had a teacher like you there would be no failling you was the coolest!!!

  10. Tom said on December 17, 2008 at 7:53 am

    Brent-

    Good to hear from you too. I think about my two years at New Bridge and all of you a lot. You and Aaron certainly made my first year teaching interesting. I still remember some of the crazy stories you’d write (and tell). Like the time you were digging holes in the back wall because “some bug crawled” under the paint or something like that. I had to give you points for creativity there. Let me know what you’re up to these days. i hope your mom is doing well.

    It’s hard to figure out how Hakeem got mixed up in this. I’m trying to figure a way to get in touch with him. Not that I can do anything to help but I figure he could use some support. I don’t know if you or Aaron are able to get in touch with him. I imagine he’d appreciate hearing from you both.

  11. christina norcross said on December 17, 2008 at 7:14 pm

    mane i knew skit mane dat was mii nicca omg…. mane it hurts to know ill never see him again.. all over some sets…who cares bout where you from, cause now that you see it took someones life.. someone that was loved very much. now how are we surposed to handle it. i knew hakeem ass. i cant believe he had something to do wit it.. mane gone but never forgotten.~SKIT~ LUV YA

  12. Tom said on December 18, 2008 at 8:12 am

    Christina-

    He seemed like a good man. I didn’t know him.

    You ask a good question. How do you handle it when someone you love has been killed? I think what Ms. Chambers says is important “My son is not here, but he will always be here in heart, and I just want to say one thing to these kids … it’s got to stop,”

    Only y’all can decide how to deal with this. I hope people can find a way to deal with it that doesn’t hurt more families or ruin more lives.

    Nothing I say matters or will make a difference but you might be able to.

  13. Mickey F said on December 18, 2008 at 10:22 am

    I have taught at Mt. Vernon for 6 years now, and I understand your dilemma. I have had students come back to me numerous times telling me I was right about something. It was always the ones that were the “difficult” ones, as they felt they always had to be somewhat difficult in order to keep up an appearance. However, I have yet to have a student put in that type of situation. I have not had a student whom I saw good in do something so bad.

    I feel your pain, and understand, as I had a student who I taught my first year at Mt. Vernon, who was walking down the road in Richmond one day, and was a victim of a drive by. He is alive, but probably will never walk again.

    I had a student that same year, Ray, who died when he was trying out for a football team. Some kind of complication with Asthma. I remember thinking what was the use of his loss? Sometimes I question why am I put here to feel for the kids, and care for them if they are taken away from us; be it by dropping out, committing crimes, or even death. The world is truly a sucky place at times like these.

  14. Tom said on December 21, 2008 at 8:30 pm

    I’ve found a fair number of Bebo sites mourning the loss of Quintin Chambers (Skits or Skittles).

    one
    two
    three
    four

  15. Diane B said on January 11, 2009 at 10:30 pm

    Tom,
    I was searching for educational blogs that integrates technology into the classroom and I came across yours by dumb luck. Not only did this post grab me, it invited me into your world for a brief moment and helped me to see into a world that I have only really read about. I am from the west coast, Washington state actually, and while every place has violence and gang activity, the place where I teach had been pretty limited to tagging and public intoxication- until December. There was a drive by shooting one evening and a sixteen year old student was gunned down for no other reason than he was walking with a guy who had gang affiliation. Ricky was never one of my students, I have only been teaching for 4 years and he was in high school, but I have several of his family members and the devastation reached far beyond the high school walls- my elementary school students were talking about the shooting, questioning the rationale of it, worried that they could be next, afraid to play on the play ground… all “normal” reactions to a crisis that is senseless and frightening. While you had a personal relationship with Hakeem, I had no direct connection to Ricky and yet I was impacted by the news- I can only imagine what is in your heart at this time. I am saddened by the news that someone has taken the life of another and I am I touched that you took the time to share your feelings as Hakeem’s teacher. I think people forget how quickly we become entwined with our students and how deeply their fingerprints mark or hearts. You have pointed out the relationship between teacher and student is more than teaching the curriculum- it is about building a relationship on a human level and treating our students as people and not FTE’s. Thank you for taking the time to share this with whomever will read it- it is important.

  16. Laura said on February 3, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    Tom,
    I just came upon your post as the news reported tonight that it was recommended that Hakeem recieve 23 years. I used to teach at Highland Springs Elementary School, probably right around the time you had Hakeem in class. I was a substitute teacher for his younger sister and later had his youngest sister in my class. It seems that I had a similar relationship with mom that you did. This is a family that I have thought about through the years b/c I worked so closely with her daughter. I also knew Quintin. A kid I really liked. So, I am with you in your heartache. As teachers, we give ourselves to “our kids”, especially in schools like New Bridge and Highland Springs. I have come to the conclusion that our only hope is God’s grace. Good luck to you.

    • Tom said on February 3, 2010 at 11:38 pm

      Laura,

      I appreciate you sharing that. It’s hard to hear. I’m not sure I have any hope when things like this happen. There’s a lot of bad on all sides and I see no good.

  17. quadaisha said on March 26, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    Hey mr.woodward please email me asap at daishacary@gmail.com

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