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Devil or Angel

No matter how often it happened, I got a jolt in the pit of my stomach. The calls came about 6:00 in the morning, so I fumbled and almost dropped the phone as I lifted myself to my elbow. "Hello."

"Connie, sorry to wake you," the voice on the other end said. With my eyes closed, I shook my head and furrowed my brow, trying to focus.  

"Good morning, Barbra. Another one?"

"Yes, a fifteen-year-old boy from Booker T." My gut lurched, and my chest pulsed. "This time, though, the shooting occurred on the grounds." This had never happened before, and it was ten years before the Littleton School massacre.

Tossing the sheets back, I forced myself to sit up, not sure I caught what she said. "The shooter came on campus?"

"Yes, at lunchtime."

Until that time, the killings took place in the late afternoon, evening, or on weekends, but never on school property during the day. Like many American cities in the early 1990s, shootings took place regularly. At this time, however, New Orleans held the highest per capita murder rate in the country. The staff discovered the reason for a student's absence--death via a concise, matter-of-fact article in The Times Picayune.

Dr. Poesy's voice roused me from my reverie. "The Social Work Department committed to assisting with helping people process what happened. Principal Vincent scheduled a meeting in the library where he'll inform volunteers on the details of the incident. Will you help?"

"I'm on my way."  

Exhausted from the on-going brutality in the city I loved, I lingered on the side of the bed. My boyfriend, Jared, slept peacefully on the other side. He relished his work, looking forward to each day, while I forced myself to trudge to the bathroom to start my morning regime.

My tired 40-year-old eyes stared back at me from the bathroom mirror. I turned on the tap, bent over the sink, and splashed cold water on my face. I remembered my enthusiasm in graduate school––now, tempered with the harshness of real life. Oh, well. One more splash and I began going through the motions of dressing and getting to the car. I drove on automatic-pilot, dazed.

Booker T. Washington High School abutted the former Calliope Housing Projects. As a psychotherapist, I visited weekly to service at-risk youngsters. Over the years, I got close to the students and faculty, and as the only white person on campus, they nicknamed me The Uncola.

Gunshots coming from the neighboring public housing became common-place. The first time I heard one, I froze. Two more bangs and I dropped to the floor. In time, though, I learned to take the reports in stride like everyone else.  

While driving through the Calliope Projects that morning, I had no concerns for my safety. The criminals slept until the afternoon. The trip home was a different matter, though. Too often, crossfire mowed down innocent bystanders--adults and children.

I turned left on South Roman Street, where the school sat, a symbol of hope during its early years. The large entrance, perched above two broad sets of concrete steps, spoke of respect for education and expectations for students. Today, its edifice, darkened from years of neglect. Its chained and padlocked doors and its shattered glass panes epitomized the despair which haunted the city.  

Searching for a parking spot along a side road, I negotiated the smelly, discarded tires which buried the sidewalks and lined both sides of the pavement. I stepped out of my car and into the first donut-shaped ring, followed by another--one-by-one--until I made my way into the street.

My heart pounded, and my jaw tightened as I approached the entrance. I seethed at this surreal, Catch 22 world. Horrified at the ever more brazen behavior of the criminal element, I wanted to scream at someone. Anyone. Dealing out their unique brand of justice, boldly and with no shame or remorse, these youngsters roamed the town, virtually unchecked. Still children themselves, they survived as best they could.

A combination of social workers, clergy, and other volunteers gathered in the library. The sound of the low, respectful murmurs reminded me of a funeral home. Soon, Principal Roy Vincent rose to address us, giving a recount of the details. "An intruder fired a volley of bullets into the chest of Devon Masters, a sophomore, killing him. His friend, Ashley Myers, who stood next to him, took a stray bullet in her leg. She is recovering in the Charity Hospital."

Mr. Vincent rubbed his forehead, adjusted his jacket, and scanned the room." The medics threw the boy's corpse into the ambulance like a sack of potatoes. Then grief turned to rage, and the faculty moved in to calm the crowd.”

Vincent continued with an urgent plea for understanding the challenge of maintaining security on campus. Trespassers came and went as they pleased. They vandalized the chain-linked fences, tearing gaping holes in them. Once repaired, the villains tore new breaches to regain access. Even with paid police officers on duty, safety still posed a challenge.

Each of us was assigned a group to debrief. Acquainted with the school's staff, two other workers and I left for the classroom where the teachers assembled. The lump in my throat made me wonder if I'd be able to speak. Once I arrived, I scrutinized the familiar faces. Some spoke with tight lips in hushed utterances; others stared with empty eyes; and still, others paced the back of the room.  

I took my place at the front, introduced my co-workers, and extended my condolences. The tension in the room gave me pause. Something seemed different about this shooting. After I gave a summary of the occurrence, I soon learned another concern weighed on their minds. Loud voices from around the room expressed warranted fear.

"What says these criminals won't waltz into a classroom next time?"

"I'm locking up before and after class from now on."  

"Hell, I'm transferring outta' here!"

The harsh truth: with a new precedent, school campuses would no longer deter trespassers anywhere in the system. These brave professionals possessed a firm grasp on the situation, and together, we sorted out feelings and considered the impact the assault would have on business as usual. Each must decide whether to continue to teach or leave.

Eventually, though, I turned the focus toward Devon Masters. The mention of his name quieted all of them, but I took a deep breath and broached the subject. "This isn't the first time we've lost a teen to violence. Apart from being at school, why is this time different?"

Silence reigned, but I didn't budge.

"What the matter? Let's face this together."

Still no answer, but I held my ground. The chirps of birds singing outside the windows, the sound of coffee perking in the lounge across the hall, and the large wall clock ticking, each underscored the stifling hush in the room.

In the sea of dazed, glistening eyes, Monique Jobert's brow furrowed, and her eyes squinted as she met mine. The newest member of the professionals, she opened her mouth as if to speak but turned her head instead.

"Tell me, Mrs. Jobert. Maybe I can help."  

With quivering lips, she proceeded. "Devon was our brightest hope with the best chance to escape. We all thought....well, we thought he'd beat the odds and make his way out of all the poverty and violence."

The ocean of nodding heads, lowered eyes, and taut lips betrayed the existence of emotional undercurrents running deep as the Mississippi River herself as she rolled through town. My heart ached. Faculty members learned to rejoice in the smallest victories. That would have been a badly needed win to keep them going.

Mrs. Woods, a math teacher, spoke next, "I can't believe they found dope in his jacket. That's just not like Devon. Maybe it was planted on him?"

"The police reported they obtained contraband from his pocket," I verified.

"If anyone gave us a dream, it was him," said Monique. "He's a...he was a quiet, intelligent, and hardworking boy. My God, he made straight A's." Heads bobbed in agreement, and more than a few sniffles spoke of their pain.  

An elderly shop instructor, Mr. Gary, jumped from his seat. "It's hopeless." His knuckles turned white from clutching his coffee cup. The veteran teacher helped many youths stay out of trouble in prior years. He'd taught them a craft and a way to earn money.  

"Why don't these boys learn a trade?" He had not yet grasped the insidious nature of modern urban life. The current problems far surpassed those of the past.

"Well, I still don't believe Devon dealt drugs," Mrs. Woods said. "But if he did, he had to have a good reason."

I couldn't imagine a good motive, but now the floodgates opened. The group vented its anger, and the room buzzed with heated speculation.

At this point, Mr. Vincent entered the room and introduced a neighbor of the family, Cassandra Morris. The teachers supported the young boy, and she realized this, so she wanted them to get the real story. One of my colleagues offered her a chair. Her jaw set as she sat upright, her eyes meeting the groups. She held her head high and her back straight, indignant, and determined to tell the truth.

"Devon, he hadda' grow up fast like mos' our chil' ren. Lucretia Jones, his momma, did her bes' to feed and care for her babies. Po' thing, she couldn't keep up no matter how she tried, being by herself and all."

The general public was unaware criminals preyed on their hardworking neighbors who couldn't fight for themselves and had no support from law enforcement. One student told me how prowlers raped her and her mom regularly. They burst into their house, attacked, and left. With no other recourse, the women got large boards and nailed the windows and doors shut at night. The mother and daughter sat on the couch facing the door all night, taking turns to stay awake and keep watch.

Another young female student carried a knife to school with her each day. Someone reported her, and the principal suspended her. When I investigated, I learned the weapon served to defend herself. A rapist assaulted her daily while she walked home. Terrified, no one would come to her defense.  

Cassandra continued, "Lucretia didn' have no money 'cause she get robbed all de time. Dem crim' nals even take her food stamps. Po' Devon, he growed up starving, and Lucretia, she couldn' do nothin' 'bout it."

Most of us think of hunger as missing a meal, and your stomach starts to growl. What these children experienced held excruciating pain, not merely loud growls.  

"So, Devon, he grew up hungry himself and didn't want his baby brother and sister to go through that the way he did. So, 'dat boy made up his own mind to do good in school, to find a little job to help feed them. Wouldn' nobody hire a boy of fifteen years, though, 'cause de law say yo' gotta' be sixteen."'

Cassandra's eyes watered before she told us what happened next. "The boy didn't want to worry his momma, but the empty cupboards..."

The young boy's neighbor shook her head and lowered her eyes before looking up again, "So, he done started sellin' dem drugs. Po' boy, he didn't last too long.".

Among the impoverished, there are two versions of a story––one in the newspaper, a brief item on the incident, and the real one. Now, we all sat here grieving over the untold story and the loss of this unfulfilled young life.

No one could deny Devon's actions were criminal, and he paid a huge price for them.

As we pondered the seething irony of his too-short life, though, my heart grappled with another reality: this boy was a martyr.