Students joined the National School Walkout as a way to show solidarity for Stoneman Douglas while also remembering classmates and friends who were lost to gun violence.
By F. Amanda Tugade
Quarntaz Thomas held the memory of his classmate and friend, Kejuan Thomas, close to him as he stood outside Tilden Career Community Academy last month for the National School Walkout.
Kejuan was shot and killed on a summer afternoon at a Bradley Park basketball court last year. He was only 16. His death had an impact on Quarntaz, who decided to join a group of Tilden students for the demonstration.
“You deal with [the loss] by finding someone who’s dealt with it, who can guide you,” said 18-year-old Quarntaz. “Even though it happened, think about the future. Think about what you can do. Think about how you can prevent it.”
Quartaz found his answers in civics class, where teacher Samuel Davis encouraged him and his peers to stay informed and engaged in political and social issues that resonate with them.
Davis also remembered Kejuan, who he taught as a freshman, as a “bright kid” who he looked forward to teaching again.
“I never had a student who I had a very personal relationship with who was murdered, who was killed,” he said. “It was very difficult for me.”
As a teacher and a father of three young children, Davis struggled with grief after Kejuan’s death and recalled breaking down during his funeral. “I just wasn’t prepared for it,” he said about attending and speaking at the service.
When the school year began, Davis saw his students still mourning and began to use his civics class as a way to offer support and let them all know they weren’t going through that experience alone. He wanted to “help show [them] a positive way” and give them a space where they could talk and listen to each other.
Davis knew all too well what his students were going through. Aside from losing Kejuan, he lost two of his cousins, who were both in their 20s, to gun violence on separate occasions. One of them was murdered on his aunt’s porch in 2009, he said.
“This club, you know, it helps us,” said Harlan Fuentes, another student of Davis’s. “Because a lot of us, we’ve had these personal experiences, and we can just talk about it to other people without judgment or anything. It’s pretty much like a family in our group.”
Quarntaz partnered with the 17-year-old Fuentes to plan the April 20 walkout, which was part of the nationwide student-led movement that demanded gun reform. Thousands of young people across America marched in memory of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in February and marked the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre.
“It’s important for me because living in Chicago there’s a lot of gun violence,” Quarntaz said. “If something like [the Stoneman Douglas shooting] happened at school, that’d surprise me. I felt like how they felt like when it happened. So, I was going to show my respect.”
That Friday morning, he and Fuentes met staff and students at the school’s “peace pole,” where they offered a moment of silence for those who lost their lives to gun violence.
“We just wanted to get the message out there because there [are] people protesting in other states,” Fuentes said. “Even if we are a small school, our voices are still important no matter what. There’s not that many of us, but we feel like we could do something and try to help stop gun violence.”
Tilden’s principal, Maurice Swinney, applauded his students for their participation. At the end of the day, he called his students into the auditorium and “celebrated their choice” to be a part of the national movement. Beyond that, he spoke to them about how important it was to build relationships with and be respectful to each other.
Quarntaz and Fuentes took pride in seeing how receptive Swinney, Davis and faculty members were to their protest. While the pair continue to bounce ideas on what initiatives to take on next with their classmates, they reflected on feeling a sense of empowerment and strength.
“It was a very liberating experience — just to know that we have the support of the teachers and the staff,” Fuentes said. “Everybody supports us and what we do, especially here at Tilden. I feel like we could just be ourselves. You can express yourself without [anyone] judging you.”