One week after 14-year-old Evanston Township High School Freshman Dajae Coleman was shot and killed, thousands attended his funeral.
My son and I approached the church just as Dajae’s family arrived. Despite the hundreds of people lined up outside the building, I have never heard such silence. The line inched forward as mourners entered and left the church, paying their respects to Coleman’s family. I saw women in their finest, babies in strollers, and mothers and fathers with arms around older children. Boys with “R.I.P. Dajae” shaved into their hair. City officials, educators, clergy. And then there were the students. So many kids, wide-eyed and stunned, stealing glances at the adults, surely wondering how we’d allowed this to happen to one of them.
Entering the church, the vestibule felt heavy with heat and sadness.
A line of young men filed through the crowd toward the right. One boy clenched his fists tightly as he fought back tears. As my son stepped into that line, entering the sanctuary where his new friend lay dead, I cried for the first of many times that day.
The boys gathered to the right of the altar, but I followed the line of mourners toward Dajae’s casket. It was literally surrounded by flowers and photographs and posters filled with handwritten messages. I glanced to my left and saw Dajae’s mother in the front row. I shook my head, touched my heart and mouthed the words, “I’m sorry.”
Though I could not see her eyes behind her sunglasses, she nodded.
Two girls in front of me sobbed uncontrollably as they walked past Dajae’s body. I followed them, unsure whether to take a seat or keep moving toward the back of the church. I never saw an open seat, and when I reached the back, a woman extended a box of tissues toward me. Only when I took a few did I realize I could not catch my breath. I stepped outside into the warm fall air, inhaling deeply and letting my tears flow as I walked past hundreds of people still waiting to enter the building.
Across the street, I sat on a low brick wall at Simpson and Ashland and sent my son a text. “I’m outside. No rush at all. I didn’t take a seat inside. Just sitting in the sun. Take as long as you want.”
I sat in that sunshine for two hours, thinking about how Dajae’s death has changed everything.
I thought about the two questions I’ve heard nonstop this past week: “How could this happen to someone like Dae Dae?” and “Why did that guy have a gun?” I thought of one friend who’d pointed out that, in addition to the tragedy of Dajae’s death and the frustration over his alleged killer’s actions, she’d like to know the path of the gun that was used to murder Coleman. “How exactly does a gun get into the wrong hands like that?” she wondered.
I thought of an email from another friend who expressed compassion for the alleged shooter’s family. “The suspect comes from a good Evanston family,” she wrote. “My heart bleeds for the[m], even though I condemn what their son allegedly did. This becomes a delicate issue now, and I am so sad.”
A young couple with an infant in a car seat stopped their station wagon at the intersection, clearly curious about the traffic and police presence. I thought, if they’re anything like I was as a young parent, they pay little attention to things beyond establishing their new family. I looked at the tiny baby in the rear-facing car seat and hoped he or she wouldn’t lose a classmate after just two weeks of high school.
I watched other curious drivers marvel at the line of people outside the church; police officers shaking their heads; an older black man commenting on the young men walking past us with saggy pants exposing their boxers. “Don’t these boys have a mirror?” he asked in amazement. “They actually think that looks good?”
A man sitting next to him remarked, “Looks like they’ve lost their pride, brother.” I wondered how young men who live in neighborhoods drowning in poverty ever break the cycle and find their way out. Inside the church, mourners listened to uplifting words about Dajae.
When the service let out, my son and I walked the six blocks to our car behind two boys, one of whom wore dress clothes too large for his young body – the assumption, of course, that he’ll grow into them someday.
But how can we as a community — and a nation — ensure that he does?
Students, families and community members have just begun to illuminate the path.
On Saturday, Sept. 29, several ETHS students organized a benefit concert at The Vineyard in Dajae’s honor, while a candlelight peace vigil was held blocks away.
No, I did not know Dajae, nor did many of the people reading this, but we’re all affected by his death. How am I affected?
—I’m not proud of this, but I find myself snipping and snapping at my kids more, thinking about Dae Dae’s mother holding him to high standards, not tolerating whining, pouting or laziness.
—I drive past the makeshift memorial at Church and Florence every day and think not only about one young man’s death, but also the trauma his friends experienced.
—As my younger son played in front of the house with his friends in the neighborhood Friday night, my daughter wondered why I didn’t tell them to come inside. “Mom,” she said, “after what happened to Dajae, aren’t you worried?” (I assured her I was not...and that someone's horrible decision with a gun was not enough to scare my family into hiding).
—I hear shouting outside and my heart races.
—I frequently look to see if a man might be holding a gun as he walks alone down a street.
—And, last night in my dreams, I sat in a dark, crowded, New York City restaurant with my children and a friend. When the check arrived, the friend encouraged me to wait outside. “I’ll take care of things,” she said. “The kids and I will meet you out front.”
I waited. And waited. And waited.
Walking back into the restaurant, I found the friend sitting alone at our table. When I inquired about my children, she replied, “You know what? They left a long time ago. I think someone took them. I don’t know who the people were or where they went.”
The terror in my heart and the rage I felt toward my friend were overwhelming...so much so that they woke me up.
Dajae’s mother, however, will never wake up from this nightmare.
One friend recently wrote to me in an e-mail about Dajae’s death. I take her words to heart:
“I do not plan on tolerating this shortfall,” she said. “I am thinking, talking, learning about what action I can take to change the presence of guns in this community (and the larger issue behind it of what young men are missing in their lives so that they turn to violence).”
She also quoted Peter Kageyama, founder of the Creative Cities Summits:
“When we love our city, as when we love another person, we will go to extraordinary lengths for them,” he writes. “We will sacrifice for them; we will push ourselves for them; we will tolerate their shortfalls; we will forgive their excesses - all because we see their true nature. When we have an emotional connection to our place...we will fight for it.”
Let’s always remember what Michael Rice said during a candlelight vigil on Church Street, when a reporter from CBS asked what his grandson’s legacy might be. Rice answered simply and directly. “Love,” he said. “His legacy is love.”