Love Letter to My Dead Student

A Chicago teacher mourns a slain student, knowing that he won’t be the last…

By Ann Mastrofsky
I was in my classroom when someone opened the door, stuck in his head and mooed. I opened the door and looked around the corner. As I expected, it was J., one of my favorite, most charismatic, and most intractable students, who typically greeted me in this manner. He very rarely attended class and when he did, he spent most of his time socializing. But he beamed with pride when you complimented his efforts. He appreciated your kindness and respected you in return. He did the best he could, and sometimes his best was outstanding; he earned the highest grade on my semester final.

I greeted him and he smiled warmly, an impish flash in his eyes. He and I had bonded early; he liked his middle aged, white female teachers, teachers like me, the best.  A huge youth, he towered over me and my neck hurt looking up at his broad face and dyed dreads.

I asked him what was up and he shrugged, smiling shyly. I told him to pull up his pants and take off his hat, both of which he did. I asked him if I’d see him in class later and he told me that I would.  A few of his friends approached and I ducked back into my room, allowing him the privacy that adolescents and teachers both require. I knew only a very little about J’s life outside of the classroom, but I knew enough to know that my ignorance was for the best.

As I expected, he never showed up in class that afternoon.

And now, he is dead at 17, shot to death by unknown assailants.

There was evidence that he sensed his time growing short. After we returned from Christmas break, J’s personality seemed to change. As usual, we rarely saw him at all, but when we did he was morose, edgy, nervous. One day, I caught him in a quiet moment and asked him how his Christmas was. He told me that he was targeted in a drive-by and narrowly escaped death; he was, he explained, taking out the trash when he heard the shots.

 He told me that he thought about dying every single day; at the same time, he seemed resigned to the reality that he would probably die this way, and probably soon.

I did the only thing I could; told him I would be there for him, and then later, emailed the school social worker, who had a caseload of over 100 students.

If he was born white and privileged, J would have been in the twelfth grade, ready to graduate high school and move on to college. He would have been an entrepreneur, a politician. He was that charismatic, that magnetic. Peers gathered around him like steam over coffee.  He had a sharp wit; he cracked up everyone he met, including his teachers. But since he didn’t have the patience or inclination for formal education, J used his talents in the ways that he could. Ways his teachers vainly protested, seeing the basic sweetness and goodness in this giant who seemed to us strangely vulnerable.

We encouraged him to keep coming to school, keep doing his best. But J was caught up in something bigger than his block, more sinister than his gang and his guns and his drugs. He was stuck in the purgatory of hopeless, helpless poverty, where everyone knows they’ll eventually end up in hell, but plan to enjoy the party while it lasts.

It’s a different thing, teaching the living dead. It’s a different thing to understand that you will likely outlive your students, that you pray they’ll be jailed rather than killed so at least they’ll still be drawing breath.

It’s a different thing, teaching the living dead. It’s a different thing to understand that you will likely outlive your students, that you pray they’ll be jailed rather than killed so at least they’ll still be drawing breath. It’s a different thing to see your students rocking guns and bags of drugs on their Facebook pages, the ones you stalk after they die.

It’s a different thing when your own peers don’t get why you teach students like them, why you love their infectious enthusiasm, their humor, their undying spirits, the respect they show you when you treat them like human beings and hold them accountable.

J lived a short, furious, and I hope, frequently happy life.  I hope that he can finally relax, now that his murder, the one that he predicted and anticipated, has happened.

His is not the first death I have encountered as a teacher, and it will not be the last.  And that reality makes me sick.

Ann Mastrofsky is the pseudonym of a Chicago teacher who has taught high school on the South and West Sides of the city for seven years.  She plans to incorporate her student’s story into her lessons this year.



  1. Oh, my God. What a moving and heartbreaking story. Our nation’s children need teachers like this wonderful lady. May God bless her, her students and their parents, and the millions and billions of others like her–and us! Please, God, bestow your blessings upon these wonderful and amazing individuals.

  2. Wow – a beautiful testament to a young man who I now feel as if I know, if only a little bit. Thanks for publishing this memorial. I too teach in CPS, and so far have attended the memorials for two students shot and killed by opposing gang members. I too am saddened and shocked – despite how often I see it – by the parents who turn a blind eye to their children’s well-being, through both active and passive neglect. What angers me the most, though, is the struggle of the students who DO want to learn, who DO want to succeed, and who DO value their education, and yet are mocked by peers for their academic curiosity, or for coming to school prepared, or for “acting white” – whatever that means.

  3. This is a very eloquent memorial for a student who is not uncommon in the urban classroom: the often charismatic, sometimes furious student who changes on a dime as a result of home, the streets, and peers. In other words, everything outside the classroom. As a fellow CPS teacher, I’ve met many students like this. These students are failed by safety nets both large and small: the CPS bureaucracy itself that grinds up everyone in its path and, mostly, the awful home life that Darrell endured during his brief life. Yet, while schools can most certainly not fix homes, the energy of every politician, wonk, and academic focuses almost exclusively on this instead of focusing on the endemic disintegration of the family neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides face. It is easier to hold teachers and students to high expectations than to address why swaths of our society are left in the dust and what that means for all of us.

  4. For these students, the essay ” What I want to be when I grow-up”,
    sadly becomes, “What I want to be if I grow-up.”

  5. Bless you for the work you do, and deepest sympathies to you on the loss of your student. It certainly is a different thing to work with these young men & women. May he rest in the peace he didn’t find in this world, and may you find the strength to continue your good work.

  6. Yes bureaucracies failed this student, J.

    Was J even identified appropriately under Child Find?

    Was J provided with the appropriate remedial instruction?

    Why didn’t any professional educator help J early on to close those academic weaknesses he struggled with? How did he get to high school I’m presuming he was in high school although maybe he was behind in physical grade levels as well as behind in instructional levels…

    Why did J fall farther and farther behind each year early on, rather than get the appropriate and targeted help he desperately needed that might have changed this young man’s trajectory?

    Did everyone who had the opportunity to help J during the school day try their hardest to ensure that he was not struggling needlessly in his work?

    And what did they do to level the playing field in order for him to stay at grade level while as working with him on closing those academic gaps he struggled with?

    So then, there really is a school to welfare and prison pipeline as was painted in this picture.

    If testimonials such as this does nothing to address the failures so many children experience in our public schools, what will?

    If those on the front lines of the classroom cannot successfully figure out how to teach these kids how to read and write and do math with a level of proficiency that is not equivalent to functional illiteracy or worse, what hope is there for them then?

    No wonder they feel hopeless, eh? Because apparently it must be so….

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