Last week, my 8-year-old daughter and I were talking about what happened in Newtown, Conn., because she’d heard about it at school. She was upset, but it was only when I told her that some of the teachers and the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, had died, that she started to cry.
That seemed to be the most real to her because she knows my story. She knows that it could be her own parent. It was only then that it occurred to me that the principal there had children too—it wasn’t just her who made the sacrifice, but her own children. That’s when the weight of it hit me.
About five years ago, three young gang members came to the campus of my charter school in south Los Angeles looking for a student of mine. I was in my office. All of a sudden, a couple students ran in yelling my name and saying that there were people outside beating up a student. I ran out, and just as I was arriving, one of my student’s friends tried to grab the person who was beating him up, and the man started beating up this other young man as well. He was hitting him with something in his hand.
I saw it was a gun.
I screamed for the gathering crowd of students to get back, and for the teachers to take them to their rooms. I remember having to push through the students because a couple of them wanted to grab this man with the gun to get him off of their friend. “No, I’ll do it,” I said, and I grabbed his arm. I grabbed his arm and then—I didn’t even remember this part until students told me afterward—he pushed me to the ground. I got back up and grabbed his arm again and he looked at me and he stopped beating this kid. He got up and we just stared at each other.
He yelled at me to get away from him and he started running. I know that there were other people with him, but I don’t even remember seeing them. He ran across our campus and out the gate, and I was chasing him and his friends down the street as I was calling 911. I remember the police saying to me, “Why are you chasing people who have a gun?” And I said, “They hurt my students, they hurt my students.”
I was in my heels and couldn’t keep up with them, and finally I lost them around a corner. My two students had been beaten pretty badly, but thankfully they were conscious when paramedics came and ended up being OK. I don’t know that the gang members intended to use the gun for anything than beating these kids up, but it was traumatic for the school. Of course it wasn’t nearly as traumatic as what happens when someone dies.
Two years later, I left to help start a school for dropouts that was embedded within a nonprofit in Los Angeles that works with gang members. I was like a one-room schoolhouse for kids who’d been through the juvenile-justice system and were trying to get their lives together.
One day I met a kid in his early 20s who had come by the classroom, looked in, and offered to help. José (his name has been changed) was one of the many people taking advantage of the services the nonprofit offered. He said he already had his diploma and was studying at a community college to be an electrician. I would say hello to him when I saw him, and one day he asked if he could study in the back of my classroom. I thought, sure, that’s a good role model for the kids getting their diploma to see someone studying for a career.
Because he was in the classroom a lot, I started to get to know him more. I soon found he loved to read and loved history. He really wanted to go to a four-year college, but he had a baby and felt he needed to get a job quickly so he could support his family. Another researcher and I took a shine to this young man and we would take him to events on college campuses because we saw he was interested in education and academia in a way that a lot of students who drop out of school are not.
One day, José got arrested on a probation violation. During his time in jail, the mother of his child started to come around often with their child. José wrote me a letter asking if I would look out for her and his son. I agreed.
While José was doing some months in state prison, another young man who had been my student at the previous school and had worked at this nonprofit as well said to me, “Miss, I have to tell you something I just think you deserve to know.” He told me that I knew the person who had come to our school with a gun those years ago.
“It’s José,” he said. “You’ve done so much to help him and I thought you should know.”
I was shocked. My first thought was, how could I not recognize this person? How could I not have physically recognized him? I have a vivid picture in my mind of him looking at me as he pushed me and again after I got up and grabbed him. It’s one of those things I’ve thought about it so much—how could I not recognize him?
In the middle of violence, a face is not the same. The face of the young man I met who reads books and studies and wants to have a good job to support his child and go to college—that’s not the face of the young man who was there with the gun beating my student.
I remember his eyes. I remember them being hard and angry, as if they could shoot me. I think this is why I didn’t recognize him two years later. His eyes were different. They were inquisitive. He is someone who wants to understand the world and how it led him down one path and, perhaps, someone like myself down another. I am glad that that I cannot reconcile the faces. I am glad for both of us, because now we both have a deeper, more sympathetic view of people very different from ourselves.
So I wrote to José and I asked how he could have kept this from me. He wrote back and said, “In the beginning I couldn’t tell you because I didn’t know what you would do. I knew who you were right away when I saw you and I couldn’t tell you. And then you were so kind to me I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. How could I tell you?”
I decided to keep in touch with him and keep the conversation going. This person did a really awful thing to kids that I cared so much about, but at that point I was very much enamored of his son and had become friends with the mother of his child. In fact, shortly after I found out who he was, she told me she was going to baptize their son and said they would like me to be the godmother. I asked if José had ever told her about what happened that day at my school and she said he had. So I wrote to him and asked if they were sure they wanted me to be the godmother of their son. And he said, “Yes, you’re a good person. I know you’re a good person because you know what I did.”
José lives in Mexico now and I email him often. I send him books too. Through this experience, I came to know his whole family, so I have these special people in my life as a result of something that started out so awful. I think I’ll spend my whole life trying to make some meaning out of that, but I guess I just got lucky.
That morning, when my daughter asked me about the shootings, I thought of the teachers and the principal and the school psychologist in Newtown. I would guess that they would do it again, even knowing what the outcome would be. As a parent, I feel safe sending my daughter to her school because I know there are people who would do what those teachers at Sandy Hook did. As horrible as it is, you can step back and see how lucky we are that we’re able to send our kids to schools where people would do that for them.
That’s what a passionate educator is—someone who looks at the students as if they’re their own children. It’s just like being a parent: if someone’s hurting your child, you’re going to step in and do whatever you can do to stop that. Those are our babies, those are our kids. The educators in Newtown were heroes every day that they went to work and they were heroes until it came to be their time.
As told to Nina Strochlic