Senn High School. (Photo: phjudge)

Bright minds, dark paths

For some Chicago high schoolers, the journey to school each day is littered with the city’s violence

On a breezy fall morning in Chicago, Destiny Rogers marched down the unevenly-paved Chicago streets to the Wilson CTA Red Line stop in her brown knee-high boots. She is headed for class at Nicholas Senn High School, and like any other day, there’s a good chance she will run into violence along her path.

“It’s all the time,” said the 15-year-old. “I’ve seen a lot of fistfights that get out of control. I see people get hurt. I see so many yellow tapes, so many police officers, so many news vans…it’s like, ‘Wow, another one.’”

For most teens, high school is a four-year safari through the adolescent jungle, filled with mood swings and mental breakdowns about where to apply for college and whom to bring to the Homecoming dance. More than attending classes, it can be a battle to survive mounting homework and unrelenting gossip, with no greater feeling than the freedom given by the ringing of a bell at the end of the day.

However, for students at Senn High School, the fight doesn’t stop after they exit the classroom. In addition to the normal stress of being a teenager at an American high school, many Senn students carry an additional fear in their backpacks as they face the reality of life during Chicago’s most violent year in two decades.

“I think if you ask a typical group of students in [Chicago Public Schools] if they’ve been affected by violence, almost every hand would go up,” said Jon Schmidt, an assistant professor in the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago who works closely with Senn as part of a partnership between the two schools.

Cathryn Kelly

Students at Senn High School must pass through metal detectors upon entering the school.

Schmidt isn’t exaggerating; According to DNAInfo, 106 children and teens have been murdered and hundreds more injured due to violence in Chicago so far this year.

What the statistics sheet doesn’t account for are the many wounded witnesses who can’t erase the scarring memories of violence they’ve seen in the streets. As a former Manager of Democracy Education for CPS who is still closely connected to the school system, Schmidt has seen first hand the ways that violence impacts inner-city students, even if they aren’t victims themselves.

“The trauma that students experience as a result of violence affects how they learn in the classroom and their ability to be their best selves,” Schmidt explained.

This is certainly the case for Rogers, who commutes to Edgewater from her Uptown home to attend Senn.

“There would be things you wish you hadn’t seen, but you can’t really get rid of them because you’ve seen them so young,” recounted Rogers in her description of a typical trip to and from school.

Rogers grew up with violence all around her, calling her encounters with brawls and crime scenes “the everyday Chicago life” that forced her to mature at an expedited rate. Although Rogers claimed she is used to witnessing violence in the streets, she wasn’t so prepared to receive the news that her cousin was shot five times one summer night in June 2016.

“It was horrible,” Rogers said. “I’ve never seen so many tubes coming out of somebody’s body before. But he did survive, and that’s what [I’m] happy for.”

Rogers’ cousin was one of 10 victims of gun violence in Chicago that day, and one of over 400 victims during that month.

That statistic wouldn’t surprise Mariah Rivera, a classmate who, like Rogers, is no stranger to violence.

“In Chicago, [violence is] an everyday thing,” said Rivera, 15. “When I was a freshman, I remember getting off the train and seeing that this boy I knew from my neighborhood was shot. I didn’t even know what was going on at first, I just saw the yellow tape and detectives everywhere.”

Rivera exudes a tough exterior, admitting to her part in a few physical altercations near Senn after classes were dismissed. Still, Rivera often finds herself fearful for her safety as she makes her daily trek from Edgewater to her home on the West Side.

“I watch on the news a lot of girls walking home who either get taken or raped…it’s scary. I never used to pay attention [to violence] when I was a kid, but as I’ve grown up, I’ve had to pay attention more, and be very wise about what I see and what I hear,” she said.

Rivera’s classmate Somi Boyd, 16, can relate.

“I guess I live in fear,” said Boyd, who recently returned to Chicago after living in Oakland, California for the last two years. “[I feel unsafe] a lot of the time, but I kind of have to take a deep breath and assume the best of people.”

Cathryn Kelly

Somi Boyd (16) lived in Oakland, CA before moving to Chicago and enrolling at Senn.

Boyd cannot recall a time in her life when violence hasn’t played a role. Throughout her childhood, Boyd moved around between Chicago, Minnesota and California, and the violence encountered in each place took a toll on her family’s dynamic.

“One day, we had to physically pick this guy up and throw him out of our house [in Oakland]. He picked up a brick and threatened to hurt us, so my dad had to toughen up for all of us,” Boyd said. “There’s never really been a time when it’s just peaceful.”

As she settles back into Chicago through her life at Senn, Boyd is reminded of the impact of violence on her “dysfunctional” family each time she sees a hallway brawl or an armed individual walking near campus.

“You can’t really get away from violence,” Boyd said. “There’s no safe place, really.”

Regardless of their tough backgrounds, these young women choose to see the positive possibilities created by their education at Senn rather than dwell on the negative aspects of their circumstances.

“I feel like education can be my change, and everyone else’s, too, if they just try,” Rogers said.

As the teacher and director of journalism at Senn, Michael Cullinane certainly tries to facilitate some of that change as his students file into the vast expanse of computers that is room 343 every afternoon.

“We talk a lot about the skills of storytelling,” said Cullinane, 39. “I think there’s a connection between silence and violence, so I really try to promote that conversation to create a sense of healing.”

Cullinane spent much of his career teaching English at a private school in the suburbs, unsure of how things would run upon switching from a “wealthy, coddled” student body to a less sheltered group from the inner city. Now in his fourth year at Senn, he seems to learn as much from his students as they learn from him.

“I respect the students at Senn because they’ve got pasts that they’ve had to overcome, and I think it could make them into strong leaders,” he said.

Perhaps we can all learn from the Senn High School students, as they look not for revenge upon those who have hurt them, but for ways to use their pain to spark a change in the community.

“Our ancestors didn’t fight for us to fight each other,” Rivera said. “They fought for us to be free, to be individuals, to have an education. We should be happy that we have that.”

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