The headlines of the West County Times described a brazen daylight “rolling shootout” on a street in west Richmond. Gunshots and roaring engines shattered the morning calm at 10:45 AM at the same time geese were flying south overhead on this sunny, but chilly, winter day. People were scattering, ducking and taking cover. “Just like the wild, wild, west!” as some children of Richmond would say. Shootouts were nothing new to Richmond, but this one stood out from all others which usually took place in the dark shadows of a poorly lit street sometime after midnight. At 10:45 AM, stores were open for business, kids with rumbling stomachs sat in classrooms, eagerly awaiting the lunch hour. Mail was being delivered, and dogs barked behind fences to anyone who would listen. Jackhammers nearby loudly busted through cement.
On this day, I was working in a laboratory as a microbiologist in a highly secure compound for the California Dept. of Health less than a couple of miles away from the battle, after taking a leave of absence from teaching science at Richmond High School. And Ricky Clark, one of my dearest former students(teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but we do), was in the process of dying in a hail of large-caliber bullets fired from a Soviet-made rifle more commonly found in war-torn countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
I wish I could preserve Ricky's innocence by telling you that he was just a bystander, but that was not the case, as evidenced by the AK47 assault rifle found on his lap in the crashed Plymouth at the cordoned-off yellow-taped “Crime Scene”. On another street somewhere in Richmond, the same yellow tape still dangled from a lamp post, evidence of the previous day’s prequel—another shooting that started the clock ticking for Ricky's final 24 hours of life.
In the news, Ricky would be a mere statistic. He was 19 years old—an age when an African-American male homicide victim is nothing more than a number added to the yearly Richmond homicide tally. Judging from the New Year’s Eve style countdown of reporting this number, I believe some perverse readers are cheering for Richmond to beat the previous high of 62 homicides, a Richmond personal best set in 1991. Richmond cannot compete with the large neighboring cities of Oakland or San Francisco for total absolute number of homicides, but Richmond does win hands down on a homicides per-capita basis as some of my students have boasted when making their point that “Frisco and Oaktown is for suckers!” The 1991 record translated to 67.2 per 100,0000, 7 times the then national average of 9.5 homicides per 100,000.
When the victims are still children, as defined by the arbitrary “under the age of 18 criteria”, there is usually written a short story about their brief life. Often included is a picture of a smiling young boy, taken at a time in his life when the violence of his surrounding environment has not yet robbed him of his innocence, including his inalienable right as a child, to smile. The fact that Ricky was armed also added to the cool, even unsympathetic, nature of this piece of journalism. No one would ask questions about the short life of this young man. Only those blessed to have known him would see Ricky as a victim as opposed to just another “gang-banger”, “hoodlum”, “angry black man”, or worse.
No one would read about how hard his single-parent mother worked to keep him on a path that did not include guns, gangs, drugs, and violence, in a neighborhood saturated with all. From our phone calls and meetings, it was clear to me that she wanted the best for Ricky, and as a new, inexperienced teacher, I certainly did not merit her approval. I tried. New teachers in low-performing schools are just expected to try—results come later after years of experience, assuming the teacher does not leave for an increase in compensation and or better working conditions. We do not tolerate inexperienced mechanics who cannot solve our car troubles, but we do allow and excuse inexperience and failure with those playing a vital role with respect to the futures of our neediest children.
From the first 5 minutes of the first day of class, Ricky began his clowning antics, taunting me when I instructed the class to prepare to work. Eager to establish order, I quickly locked my eyes on this medium-black skinned young man with braided hair sitting in the second column of chairs from the right, third row back. With an average build, wearing a white T-shirt, black slightly baggy work pants, he spread out in his seat like a giant amoeba, both of his legs outstretched in the aisles with the soles of his construction-style work boots facing me. I casually strode over to where he sat, slapped my hand down on the table top and gave him my hardest “Let’s get with the program” stare. He flinched, quickly straightened up, shot a brief look of fear, then relaxed and smiled. I then explained the rules of my classroom to him. I believe after a quick assessment of me, he realized that I was not a “hater”, just a teacher doing his job. We had an understanding from that day onward.
Ricky's warmth and vital disposition made a teacher only want to try harder at mastering the tricks of motivation. The other students also enjoyed his comedic, jocular nature. The boys appreciated and respected him for his cool and cockiness. All of the girls, irrespective of race, wanted to help him. Not missing a beat, I took advantage of their maternal quality and paired them with Ricky. Shy at first, but with a grin and eyebrows raised, I believe Ricky to have been most appreciative of this strategy.
The stale sweet smell of cigarettes and marijuana on his oversized jacket and his bloodshot eyes provided clues into the life that this 16 year old child led when he left the musty-smelling dilapidated “ghetto” classroom, Room 655, out near the back parking lot of Richmond High School. Occasionally, Ricky would blurt out in the middle of my lectures, “Mr. C. I love you, man!” Slightly distracted, I would calmly respond, “I love you too, Ricky”, then quickly resume my lecture amidst the laughter of Ricky's classmates. I never saw one hint of anger in Ricky, making it even more difficult for me to fathom any scenario that could have led to Ricky picking up an assault rifle. Maybe it was not about anger, but about self defense. Kill or be killed. Take it to the enemy before he does you. I choose to believe Ricky was just trying to survive the day he died.
The last time I saw Ricky was in a bike shop in the neighboring city of Berkeley, 3 years after I was his teacher, one year before he died. There was some commotion coming from the back of the store as Ricky and a few of his friends had put the store employees on a heightened state of alert. I recognized Ricky's laughter. Again, wearing a white T-shirt and black baggy pants, he recognized me. “Mr. C!” he hollered across the store, now drawing eye-raising attention of employees and shoppers alike. We gave each other a quick hug and slap of the shoulders while everyone, including Ricky’s friends, looked on, trying to comprehend what they were seeing take place on the store floor—an unlikely reunion of sorts.
We chatted briefly about what we had been up to and the good ol’ days of Physical Science class in room 655. We wished each other well, then laughing uncontrollably, Ricky and his buddies stumbled out the door, bouncing into the street, so full of life. I kicked myself for not treating them to lunch at the next door McDonalds. With some students, a teacher can predict such an ending. With Ricky, I never saw it coming.