A story for every victim

Students craft poem about violence in L.A. County

English teacher Ian Sewall recently led a discussion of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" in his 10th grade honors class, an exercise he's done many times before.

Students at Downtown Business Magnet High School talked about how the community of Maycomb, where the novel is set, shapes the people who live there. Sewall turned the conversation toward the students, specifically their experiences in the neighborhoods where they grew up. He asked the students, who come from all over Los Angeles County, how their own communities shape them.

The question may have been routine, but the ensuing discussion was not.

A male student brought in a copy of the Los Angeles Times story about Westmont, a neighborhood with the highest rate of homicide in the county. He said he lived off South Vermont Avenue -- a corridor nicknamed "death alley" -- and sometimes struggled to get home from the bus stop.

The discussion continued. Other students shared experiences of violence in their communities, which Sewall said brought awareness and empathy to others.

“It’s fascinating,” Sewall said recently while sitting in his classroom, a projector screen behind him. “I look at it, and for me, the experience of seeing the students craft the poem was exciting.”

In about an hour, the students had written a poem inspired in part by the article. Each student contributed a verse. The group then read the poem out loud as a group and recorded it on Sewall’s phone:

Somewhere in L.A. County          
                 Gunshots wake up a child just in time to go to school
                       Fear immediately spread around the community

In a blink of an eye, faster than the speed of light
           No place is safe, only safer
                   True suffering has been realized

    Where most people smile, but face deadly trials
            Where the only place you can hide from it is your imagination
                       Gunshots are fired and dreams are shattered

     I can’t go outside and play, death lies in every alleyway 
            Hiding will never save me forever 
                    A momma cries and you know someone dies

     Kids are scared to go out at night
              Evils resides in the innocent mind
                        Nothing safe but home

      The brave hide in fear, but not one without a single tear
              The shadows of fake smiles stretch as they proceed 
                     To be filled in with color of red innocence and grievance 

      Bleeding we stand in front of screaming guns
             This place is a maze, oh what a disgrace
                      There is no escape from that terrible place 

     Day is just death’s delay
            I see kids every day with tears rushing down their face 
                  All of your strength and might can’t even stop one gunfight
      You call this hell, I call it my life.

-- Nicole Santa Cruz

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