Not a Monster

He Was My Favorite Student, and They Say He Killed a Baby

I knew Daquan Breland as a funny, kind, and troubled young man

AP; Newscom; Getty

It wasn’t until I got to the final paragraph of the story about Antiq Hennis, the 16-month-old shot and killed last week in Brooklyn, that I saw the alleged shooter’s face at the bottom of the page.

I cried out an involuntary, “Oh my God.” My heart raced and my breath got shallow. I started to cry and shake uncontrollably. I know him, I thought.

Or I knew him. Though the photo showed a grown man, face scrunched in what could be a menacing grimace, all I could see was a frightened 14-year-old. I used to be a middle school teacher, and Daquan Breland was one of my favorite students.

According to reports, Daquan took a .45-caliber handgun from an accomplice and fired four shots at Anthony Hennis, a 22-year-old self-described “super gang-banger,” as he pushed his young son in a stroller. Not knowing that one of his bullets had hit the toddler in the head, Daquan boasted, “I just shot that motherfucker!” He was later arrested while hiding out in a Pennsylvania housing project.

Daquan was shocked when detectives told him he had killed Antiq, according to police. He later repeated his regret in a Rikers Island interview with the New York Daily News. “Remorse doesn’t even describe what I feel. I feel a lot,” he told the reporter.

Media reports are calling him a “baby-killer,” “cold-blooded,” “stomach-turning,” a “gangster,” and "the most hated man in the city.”

“I’m not an animal, I’m not a monster,” he told the reporter.

The Daquan I taught was funny and kind and vulnerable. He’s not a monster.

Daquan is the young man I had once only half-joked about adopting. He could be difficult for other teachers, but only when he felt threatened. But that was the way with a lot of our students. They puffed their chests in the face of authority, and that kind of behavior was sometimes for pure survival outside the school walls.

Our school was in the heart of Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill. Many of our 300 students walked across the street to school from their homes in the Farragut housing projects. Others, like Daquan, came from the Ingersoll/Whitman projects in Fort Greene.

It’s not an apology, but a statistical truth that boys that come from poor, segregated areas like these already have the odds stacked against them. African-American boys in poverty are statistically disadvantaged across almost every indicator, including education, health, employment, and incarceration. The four-year graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students in New York is 63 percent, and the graduation rate for white students is 28 percentage points higher than the rates for students of color. As for the place most of our students called home, one in four public-housing residents are unemployed—more than three and a half times the national rate.

“As evil as the act is, all I can think about is the fact that he's going to be painted in such a light when he was just a product of his environment,” a former student said to me on Facebook. “I was on the phone telling my best friend that like ... living in the projects. When this is all you know? And without role models ... your soul dies.”

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Regardless of the statistics—in fact, motivated by them—our school’s mission as laid out by our then-principal, Charles Adams (now head of the SEED school in Washington, D.C., profiled in the 2010 documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’) was “to provide a rigorous and relevant educational experience for all students.” And we were serious about leaving no student behind. Often the most troubled or troubling students got the majority of our attention. No child was allowed to fall through the cracks.

Daquan was the one that we all feared for.

“He was the kind of kid that you felt like you could make a difference if you just kept a constant eye on him,” a former teacher of his told me as we talked about Daquan over Facebook.

And we tried. Daquan was always in the principal’s office having heart-to-hearts. “How can we reach Daquan?” mini-meetings would convene weekly.

A history teacher tried to get him involved in football and sometimes went to his home to check in with his mother.

I would try to mediate his feuds with other teachers or the more authoritarian vice principal before they blew up. Anything to keep him there.

I had a particularly soft spot for him. When I was a young teacher and new to Brooklyn, Daquan was in my seventh-grade English class. My first year was the absolute worst. I had no idea how to engage my students and make them listen to the lesson plans that I had perfected on white well-to-do tenth graders in Florida. There were fights in my class, but most days weren’t violent; they were just pointless. The kids talked over me and refused to do the work I assigned. I was a bad teacher.

But with an empathy that seemed beyond his years, Daquan was nice to me and helped me take control of my class. He was popular, so when he told other students to “Shut up!” during the lesson or offered a threatening glance as they got rowdy, it actually worked. And when the other kids saw that Daquan liked me, they warmed up, too. Without a doubt, he is a major factor in why I didn’t sprint out the door before the end of my first year.

I eventually got better at my teaching gig, but Daquan was less likely to come to school to see it. His absences accumulated, and soon we more often found Daquan leaning against the wall of the corner bodega than in a desk. Maybe he was selling drugs, but I never saw it. He sometimes sold single cigarettes.

“We knew that he was involved in gangs, but there was something about him that we knew he had a good heart. He was never disrespectful, or disruptive. So with a kid like that, you try your best to help them stray away from the street life,” said another of his former teachers over the phone.

He did show up for the poetry unit. It was clear that he liked writing poems; there was no pressure and no wrong answers. It was labored, but he wrote in a notebook I gave to him. When we had a poetry reading event, he made sure to come to school, and his performance was quite good. I don’t remember what his poem was about, but the subject matter was serious and the class was surprised by its tone.

But when his classmates were promoted to the eighth grade, Daquan’s missing days meant he would have to repeat the seventh. He was a tall boy anyway, but the extra year made it so that he towered over his new classmates. It was a small school and he was embarrassed to see his peers pass him in the hallway.

Principal Adams worked with him so that he could be promoted mid-year. He did start coming to school more often. When he didn’t, we were often able to walk the hundred feet to the corner store and bring him inside.

Despite our efforts, Daquan started to fall behind again. He missed more days.

Mayor Bloomberg had ended social promotion the year before. So Daquan’s truancy meant that no matter what he did (and regardless of our creative attempts at extra credit) he would be held back another year. As the other students in his cohort celebrated over their high school acceptance letters, the reality of being a 17-year-old eighth grader was too much. Daquan dropped out.

Afterward, he would come to the school at dismissal time to talk to friends and teachers, which wasn’t allowed. I don’t know what he was doing when he wasn’t at our school. But I feel like he wanted to be there, and it hurt to tell him he couldn’t be on campus anymore.

It’s been seven years since I’ve seen or talked to Daquan, and there’s a lot I don’t know. I don’t know his family, though I hear he has several siblings who are doing well and in school. I don’t know why his father wasn’t in the picture. I don’t understand why Daquan came into my classroom reading at a third-grade level or what kind of pull the street had on him. I’ll never understand how, with so many people in his corner, Daquan ended up like this.

What I do know is that whatever seduction or promises street life offered seemed like a better option for him than school, and the choices he made in seventh grade have had disastrous effects. He’s already served a two-year sentence for assault related to a different botched shooting incident upstate. A woman he met while housed in a youth correctional facility for a separate incident armed him and two other boys with shotguns to settle some score for her in a drive-by. The intended targets suffered minor injuries.

I know that if the allegations prove true, Daquan shot and killed a baby, not much older than my own child. And whatever love I have for Daquan doesn’t change the heinousness of his crime. As a mother, it’s especially and painfully conflicting to mourn the loss of a child I didn’t know at the hands of a child I did.

As a rule, I usually avoid the comments section on most websites, but I needed to see what people were saying. The common refrain was that Daquan deserved some kind of jailhouse justice for his crime. That’s what he’s expecting as well.

“I know how people see me. If something happens to me here, I understand,” Daquan told the Daily News.

“I think about my present, my past, my future. I would’ve changed things beginning in elementary school. I would’ve taken a different path,” he said.

When you’re a teacher, students become “my kids.” They spend more time at school than they do at home, and that was even truer for ours. We had before-school, after-school, even Saturday school—anything, really, to keep them in the building and learning. And for that moment in time, they were ours.

“You’re not their mom, but for that season, you kind of are a mother, especially when you’re teaching a male student and you see him struggling,” one of his former female teachers told me. “It’s a weird feeling, because part of you says, ‘He’s the killer, why would you feel bad for him?’ But as his teacher, I just love him, even after all these years.”

In conversations with several of his former teachers, we all wondered if there was something we could have done to help him. To keep this from happening.

My first instinct after hearing the news was to find Daquan and talk to him. I wanted to know exactly what went wrong and when. I wanted to confirm that Daquan was the same soft-spoken, charismatic boy I remembered and let him know there were people that cared for him still.

After the Daily News exclusive, the Department of Corrections seemed especially guarded with his whereabouts. His inmate records say he's been "released to another jurisdiction" and despite numerous calls, no one at the DOC could tell me where he was being held or if he was still at Rikers. His attorney was in court for a closed court appearance and didn’t return my calls in time for publication.

I went to his mother's house, the same one from when Daquan was in school.

Though I hadn’t been there in years, the route was familiar. I got off the F train and walked left. A right turn would have put me in Dumbo, a now-bustling neighborhood with art galleries and restaurants. When the neighborhood was first being developed, cardboard placards advertising the new luxury condos included a circuitous map, its curving dotted line conveniently avoiding the places where my students lived.

I don’t remember ever meeting Daquan's mother. A former student described her as "the sweetest woman ever" in an online chat.

I’m not even sure what I expected her to say. I think I just wanted her to know that there were people out there thinking of her son. His teachers were praying for him.

I would have asked her how she was doing and let her know we were grieving with her. But no one answered the door.