Aaron Rushing was a freshman then. He had dark skin and cottony dreads that mostly covered his eyes, and sometimes his mouth—although not enough to conceal his gentle and knowing smile. His eyes were puppy-doggish, steady. Later I would learn he was a virtuoso on the guitar and a rockstar on stage, but that afternoon I was waiting for him in the stairwell, collecting my thoughts, trying to figure out what to say to him about this poem, this worrisome poem, he had turned in.

Poetry reveals the world to a student and also reveals the world within them to the page. The world that Aaron unraveled in his poem had an accomplished sense of rhythm and image, but also brimmed with grim street knowings. Not celebrating the violence and degradation of gang life, but instead the brotherhood, the strength, the belonging, the malice.

Part of Aaron’s world had been revealed when he wrote a narrative essay about being racially profiled in Walgreens one summer afternoon. His soda-pop revelry was disrupted by anxious security guards. “They thought I was a ticking crime bomb,” Aaron wrote. Thankfully, the story ended without incident, but it did stick with him. After giving an account of what happened, Aaron seemed much more concerned with understanding and explaining the way prejudice had likely formed in the people in the store. Since he was a young black male from a high-crime neighborhood, Aaron explained that it was only natural for him to be viewed as a suspect. Rage and fear trembled beneath the lines of the story, but Aaron showed warmth to those who had shown him none. He made an effort to tell the story in a way that left the possibility for not only his innocence, but also the innocence of those who judged him guilty. Dr. King would be proud. And that’s why his poem was so troubling.

He was jogging up the stairwell when I stopped him. I told him that I thought his poem had a lot going for it, but some of the rhymes needed tightening and that, more importantly, I wondered what the piece was actually trying to say. It seemed to want to celebrate the lives of the people it talked about, but it spoke little of the consequences these very same people were inflicting on themselves and the people around them. I asked him if he knew the implication of that message. If that’s what he was trying to represent to the world. I don’t remember Aaron saying much. I can see him nodding respectfully, arms slack at his sides. I wanted to ask him more, about the poem, about his life, but I didn’t. I could tell Aaron wasn’t going to say much, he never really did. I asked him if he understood what I was saying; he said he did. Then he went to get his guitar and headed to class.

Some weeks later, I was grading the revised final drafts of the poems that were a part of the portfolio project. Grading student work is taxing because the flood of words seems endless and behind each word is a person, in a moment, straining to be heard. Assessing and grading are a part of the job, but the more important work is witnessing the human behind the words. I sighed when I saw Aaron’s portfolio: just one poem of the required five. Despite being a solid B student, I knew his grade was going to suffer because of this. Then I read the revision of his poem.

The Hood

by Aaron Rushing 5-14-13

Small green grass,
Smelly dirty trash
Big tall red apartments
Vicious Rottweilers barking.
Drug dealers or slangers
Black males with the bangers
Everybody wants to sell
Black males killing themselves.
Everybody got a set
Rep his set ‘til the death.
Talking ‘bout they took your son
Well, they can’t take what you don’t let.
But the hood was his first friend
The first friend that he met,
Say he’s gonna cap somebody
When it’s you don’t get upset.
Bullets flying, mama’s crying
And it’s still his brother’s dying.

It’s kind of fun,
But after a while
You just get tired, tired and tired.
They’re on the outside looking in, I guess,
To them he’s just so stupid.
If his brothers wrote this poem
This is how they’d say they do it.
All well big moe
Amor de ray
Latin kings.
Gang greetings
Social pacts,
Go to kevo
Get some packs.
Flipping birds
Counting stacks.
But he gotta put in work,
Gotta represent his set
Through the colors on his shirt.
Chopping bricks
That’s a start.
But he gotta play his part,
And they not snake-friendly
They eliminating narks.
Never ever lack
Gotta always watch your back,
Stay alert and keep a strap.
Cracking treys all day.
Rep the six, he get popped
Drop the five, he get dropped.

He ain’t grow up in the hood
The hood grew up inside him,
He got love for the hood
I guess he’s married to the streets.
He was born a human beast
Spitting words over beats.
He was born to evade
Jumping hurdles, making leaps.
He was born on the bottom
He aspired to have it all,
But when moving too fast
There’s a greater chance to fall.
He was blind to his dreams
He could do nothing but stall,
Stay stagnant
Couldn’t move.
He was born on the bottom
He ain’t have nothing to lose.
The hood stay noisy
You can call him very rude,
So he just lit another pack
Just to lighten up his mood.

In the words of his brothers
In the words of the dead,
He just wrote what he heard
Like in this poem he just read.
Don’t make judgments, don’t assume
If you ain’t got nothing to prove
That you can fill the same one’s shoes.

I was stunned. The revision was carefully attentive to language and image, but it also deepened the complexity of the voice. No longer a celebration about street life; now it soberly described the psychological means by which a young man was trapped.

The speaker knows his audience will impart the question of “Why?” onto his poem, his experience. He also knows this audience likely has brought along their own answer, one that’s tied to assumptions and biases that have little to do with the particularities of his experience. If you’re living in a world where you don’t have to constantly prove yourself, you can’t understand those that do, he replies.

This piece doesn’t need the audience to ask “Why?”; the question already lives at the heart of the poem. Why does the boy get wrapped up in a life that ends in such misery? Why him? Especially when he sees the consequences of this misery all around him? Each time I read the poem, I trip over these lines in the beginning:

Talking ‘bout they took your son
Well, they can’t take what you don’t let.
But the hood was his first friend
The first friend that he met

The speaker interrupts the parent’s grief to remind them that they let this happen by allowing the hood to be “his first friend.” The severity and flippancy of this section gives me pause. It leaves me with questions about how, exactly, does a parent “let” their child be taken? What is the speaker suggesting has been or has not been done? The speaker doesn’t say; maybe the speaker doesn’t know.

It’s disturbing how inevitable the whole tragedy seems. The speaker tells us about all the things that were predetermined at the boy’s birth: He was born a human beast; He was born to evade; He was born on the bottom (x2). Like he had no choice, no agency. That lack of agency is reflected in other lines: He was blind to his dreams; He just wrote what he heard; He could do nothing but stall;

Although Aaron’s essay was concerned with his misperceived guilt by security in Walgreens, his poem was about the inherent guilt of the child, and family, who falls victim to the streets. I suppose this shouldn’t be all that surprising because it’s hard to convince a kid that being denied a chance at innocence is not the same as being born guilty.

A fellow teacher and friend, Edgar Aguirrre, once told me that you lose your innocence the moment you choose not to look at the truth in front of you. In that way, innocence is not simply for the young and uninformed, but an opportunity that all of us have when we choose to question the world and ourselves more closely. Ironically, for Aaron, writing this poem about the lost innocence of a child ended up revealing his. He realized, probably even before I said anything, that his first draft did not wholly examine his lived experience. His second draft allowed us to delve into the sorrowful fraternity of men lost and abandoned, men who are marked for containment and death. Instead of the mask of celebratory bravado, Aaron questioned this experience.

As his teacher, it makes me think more about the students in front of me and their relationship with their own innocence. Inquiry-based learning is the latest pedagogical dogma, but the part that resonates with me is that schools should not only develop academic tools to critically examine experience, but also provide an environment where a student can perceive their own innocence. An environment where a child can be courageous with the questions they ask themselves, the questions they ask the world. Our children are questioned, judged, and condemned so often that they start to see questioning as an external and fruitless process. Why ask yourself a question when the answers are always the same: guilty. Our children need to know that innocence can exist in any present moment, as long as we open ourselves to our questions. They don’t stop nightsticks or hollow points, but our questions can unshackle our souls from a world that fears us. A world we fear. That’s an awesome power.

In Aaron’s case, this wasn’t enough to save him.

On May 19, 2014, just about a year after he turned in his poem, he was shot and killed in an alley on the South Side of Chicago. I don’t know all the particulars of what was going on in his life the Sunday afternoon he was killed, but I do know that his commitment to school, and the guitar he loved, had wavered. He transferred schools and was getting closer to the streets. Discourse around this kind of tragedy always seems to be about how the young person should have known better, which, of course, is a judgment on their intelligence and moral character. But for me, Aaron’s poem shows he did know better, I just wonder if he felt better. Did his heart know that he had alternatives? Did his heart know that his destiny wasn’t written in tombstone? Did he know how courageously innocent he was? Aaron Rushing was a tremendous writer, artist, and human. He is dearly missed.

Abdel Shakur is a writer and teacher. His fiction, essays, and reviews have been published in Santa Clara Review, 2 Bridges Literary Review, Glint, Scissors and Spackle, The Other Journal, and Indiana Review. You can find more of his work at misstraknowitall.blogspot.com and @misstraknowit

[Illustration by Jim Cooke]