Yesterday in the school auditorium at Life Academy, school employees and grief counselors stood in a circle and quietly discussed their plan for the memorial assembly in 18-year-old Alejandro Aguilera‘s honor. Some of them had puffy eyes. Most looked exhausted.
Apart from the sorrow and the heaviness in the room that day, something else hit me: Everyone seemed to know what to do. One teacher noted that her students erected altars for the dead with a disturbing degree of expertise.
The small school — and the broader community — has experienced far too much loss. This is the second such assembly I’ve attended at Life since the school year began.
This evening, as I began clearing the stacks of notebooks and old newspaper clips off my desk in preparation for our move back to downtown, I found a spreadsheet I had printed out more than two years ago. It’s not titled, but it has 13 students’ names on it — followed by a date, a school, and their ages, 13 to 19.
Those 13 students died during a 13-month period: May 25, 2009 to June 23, 2010. I must not have thought it complete, as I left two spaces between James Allen (Bunche Academy), who died in March 2010, and Damon Williams, 17 (Bunche Academy), who was killed three months later.
I remember why I started the list — it seemed that more students and recent graduates were dying in the streets, and at younger ages. (The first four Oakland students who died in 2009 were 13, 16, 14 and 15.)
I can’t remember why I stopped. My last entry was Rachael Green, newly graduated from Bunche Academy, who was gunned down at a vigil in West Oakland for one of her classmates.
Maybe the violence was too depressing, or the log too sterile a way to record the relentless string of early deaths.
Whatever the reason, that is why I can’t tell you how many Oakland students have died violently in the last two years, or even since the school year began. I’ve lost count. So, apparently, has Oakland Unified, which didn’t have a number yesterday.
Yesterday at the event for Alejandro, people hastened to tell me that — though he was a Latino teen from the flatlands — he wasn’t in a gang, and that he was a wonderful human being with so much life and potential. They wanted him to be remembered as more than a “San Leandro man” shot on a dodgy street corner on a Friday night.
A wail rose from the front row the moment his picture appeared on the projector screen. Maybe the number doesn’t matter after all. One is too many.