Here was the collateral damage from an Overtown shooting. Five little elementary school kids, first day back from spring break, sitting in pained silence, staring at an empty desk.
Erica, just 8, hadn’t heard about Marlon, not until she came to school Monday morning and a grief counselor was waiting in Ms. Jackson’s classroom.
Her classmate Marlon Eason, 10, was dead, gunned down in Overtown last week. The weight of the news seemed discernible as the little girl slowly lowered her head until her chin rested on the desktop.
The measure of the children’s hurt was the peculiar quiet that hung over the classroom in the Center of Life Academy, a small, religious school in Northwest Miami. Normally, first day back from break, the kids would be buzzing with excitement, said their teacher, Sabrina Jackson. On this Monday, the children sat in a self-imposed hush.
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“How do you feel?” asked Jorge E. Garcia, a psychologist with Miami-Dade public schools, sent to help the understaffed private school deal with the trauma. He tried posing several variations of the question but elicited one-word replies. The same word. “Sad,” they said, and not much more. He asked them to write down their feelings. Erica responded by drawing a page-sized emoji face with tear drops, a downturned mouth and the caption, “I feel very sad!!! Sad!!!”
Marlon was murdered last Tuesday night, gunned down on the front porch of his Overtown home for no reason police can discern other than some passing gangbanger might have felt disrespected by the kid. No one has been arrested.
Two hours earlier, on an Overtown street just six blocks away, 16-year-old Richard Hallman had been killed and another 16-year-old wounded in a different shooting.
“I knew Little Richard, too. He would come to my momma’s house,” said Kareem, another of Marlon’s classmates, leaving the adults in the room to consider the state of a community in which an 8-year-old could lose two young acquaintances in a single night in two unrelated shootings.
The Center of Life Academy is a small religious school with just 95 kids, from second to 12th grades. Sabrina Jackson’s class normally included 11 students — second-, third- and fourth-graders. But Monday, only five of her kids attended school. She blamed the absences on the trauma caused by Marlon’s murder.
Jackson, 43, was pretty traumatized herself. “I keep picturing him,” she said. The fourth-grader was one of her favorites. His desk was next to hers, facing the class, her self-appointed teaching assistant. A Bible and composition book and a few folders remained stashed beneath his empty desk.
The children were asked if they had dealt with other instances of violence in their lives. It was not just 8-year-old Terry’s answer but his matter-of-fact tone that said something about the warped reality kids can suffer growing up in Miami’s inner city.
“My grandfather was shot 10 times,” Terry said. And then there was his cousin. “He was shot by two guys with AKs,” Terry said, referring to the AK-47 assault rifles used by some Miami gang members. “He was shot and he tried to crawl away. He got to the door and then they shot him again.”
“Imagine, an 8-year-old already knowing this,” Garcia told me later. Garcia, who has worked as a Miami-Dade school psychologist for 29 years, said over that time he has had to deal with “younger and younger” kids exposed to the kind of trauma that he once only encountered among a few high school students. But still, he added, a 10-year-old murder victim was, for him, a grim first.
He said the stoic demeanor of Jackson’s students Monday disguised what these children were suffering. “Everyone’s in shock,” he said, warning that the adults in their lives should expect behavioral issues, hyperactivity, sleeplessness. “A lot of them will act out their feelings.”
It was the second instance of gun violence affecting students and faculty at the school housed in a converted warehouse on Northwest 17th Avenue. Last year, Michelle Wilcox, a 33-year-old Center of Life teacher, was chased through the streets of Opa-locka by her gun-wielding husband and killed on a street outside a daycare center.
Jackson, who grew up in a tough housing project in Liberty City, said that it was the gun play that made life so dangerous in modern-day Overtown and Liberty City, afflicting the lives of even little children.
“These kids should not have to go through this,” said Jackson, who lives just a few blocks from the school. I asked whether she worried about the safety of her own three kids when they went out at night. “They don’t go out at night,” she said flatly. “I don’t allow that.”
The kids in her class fell into conversations with one another about last week’s shootings. It was a terrifying exchange to overhear, coming from the mouths of children. “One of his fingers got shot off but a bullet hit him in the eye. That’s what killed him.”
It was utterly dispiriting to know that in certain neighborhoods in our community, children so small that they could sit at their school desks and swing their feet and only brush the floor could talk of murders and murder victims.
As young Kareem said, with harrowing understatement, “They need to stop this killing.”