When the bullets tore through the window, 9-year-old Jamyla Bolden was doing her homework on her mother’s bed.
She had a reading evaluation coming up, and she was determined to top her last one. She wanted to demonstrate anew that she was living up to the exhortation posted at the entrance to her school, “Do Better Than Your Best.”
“She would always say, ‘I’m doing better than my best today, I’m doing better than my best,’” reports Melanie Powell-Robinson of the local school district.
Jamyla’s studies ended forever at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday as she slumped over, fatally wounded. Her 34-year-old mother was hit in the leg. Her grandmother burst into the bedroom and held the bleeding child.
“Keep breathing! Keep breathing! Keep breathing!” the grandmother kept telling her.
A call to 911 brought at least three police officers, who entered wearing the same uniform that Darren Wilson had been wearing during his fatal confrontation with 18-year-old Michael Brown just around the corner from Jamyla’s home exactly one year and nine days before.
“POLICE CITY OF FERGUSON,” read the shoulder patches.
Cops in this uniform had also faced off against protesters during the demonstrations in the days after Brown’s death and again on its first anniversary just a block over from this house on Ellison Drive. Three words had been chanted again and again within easy hearing of here.
“Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter!”
The officers now set to doing all they could to save this particular black life, as they would any life, most particularly a child.
“There’s a child that’s laying there, defenseless, and someone did this to her,” recalls Sergeant Dominica Fuller, who has a 9-year-old daughter of her own.
The paramedics joined in, and they all tried to do better than their best. Jamyla was beyond saving.
“As a mother, I was hurt,” Fuller says. “I cried and said a prayer for her, and my heart is still broken.”
The doctors at the hospital deemed the mother’s wounds to be non-life-threatening. Jamyla’s brother, who is 10 months older, had also been in the house, but he had escaped injury. He remained at home with the grandmother, who stood with her dead granddaughter’s blood on her hands, recalling to a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch how she had told Jamyla to keep breathing.
The family told the Post-Dispatch that it believes the shots were fired deliberately into the bedroom from a path that runs alongside the house. Three bullet holes were visible in the window screens. Two more were in the aluminum siding.
The house next door had a lawn sign out front with a message offered by 10,000 identical signs that have gone up in the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.
“We Must Stop Killing Each Other.”
The next-door neighbor drove up and climbed out of her car. The grandmother went over and the two embraced, in tears.
Gunfire had also filled the night back on August 9, the first anniversary of Brown’s death. Police afterward reported that they had shot 18-year-old Tyrone Harris after he allegedly fired on them. A stolen handgun had been recovered.
Jamyla had started the fourth grade the very next morning at the Koch Elementary School, which she had attended since kindergarten. Koch is the closest school to the scene of the demonstrations, and there could have been no more beautiful and hopeful sight than this sparkly-eyed little girl starting a brand new academic year so determined to make her own life matter as much as it possibly could.
She promised to be an example for all as she strove to live up to the exhortation posted at the entrance.
“She wanted to live up to whatever standard was put before her,” Powell-Robinson says.
Jamyla had been finishing book after book all summer so she would be sure to top herself in the reading evaluation scheduled for Wednesday.
“She couldn’t wait to get back and be evaluated,” Powell-Robinson says. “She really wanted to do a good job at school.”
Powell-Robinson adds, “She was just a joy to be around.”
No desk could have ever looked more profoundly empty than did hers on Wednesday morning. The school officials who broke the news to her classmates avoided using the word “shooting.”
“We don’t say that,” Powell-Robinson says. “We say a classmate has passed away.”
A “care team” of counselors and social workers visited all the classrooms for the third, fourth, and fifth grades.
“Class to class,” Powell-Robinson reports, adding that they look for “visual signs of grief… crying or forgetting.”
The school understands that after passing through the adult-sized stages of loss and grief, kids need to be encouraged to be kids.
“It’s OK to jump and run,” Powell-Robinson says.
By Thursday, Jamyla’s mother had been released from the hospital. There was talk of a vigil and balloon release that evening. People who called the family to offer their condolences included Ira DeWitt, wife of St. Louis Cardinals president Bill DeWitt. The DeWitts offered to pay for Jamyla’s funeral.
The lawn sign was still up next door with a message that was composed by James Clark of a nonprofit community development organization called Better Family Life. The organization had put out another sign in 2005 that read “Put Down the Pistol.”
The new one reading “We Must Stop Killing Each Other” replaced it last year. Clark emphasizes that the message is not just for African-Americans.
“The message is for everybody, for mankind,” Clark says.
He reports that the new sign continues to be in great demand.
“We can’t keep enough in stock,” he says. “This is a very dark hour.”
Late Thursday morning, Sergeant Fuller spoke at a press conference. Her pain and the pain of her fellow officers had been joined by a determination to identify and arrest the killer.
“You have a 9-year-old child sitting on her mother’s bed doing her homework and a bullet strikes her,” Fuller said. “Our concern is to get this person off the street.”
Fuller was asked to describe the scene.
“It was a somber scene because a child was shot,” she said.
Fuller was then asked for her thoughts on gun violence.
“Our kids are dying at a young age at a fast pace,” she said.
Then, in the uniform of the Ferguson police, Fuller rejoined her fellow officers in the hunt for the killer.
At other times, cops there had done their worst.
But they now seemed set on doing better than their best.