"Look, I want to show you this". A woman held out her cell phone to me. I tilted it in the sunlight, trying to get a clear picture of what she was anxious for me to see. I was outside Chicago's City Hall. This woman, a Chicago Public School parent, along with dozens of other parents, and myself had just finished protesting the closings of fifty-one public schools. I looked at the screen and saw nine faces framed in a tic tac toe grid, like the open sequence to the Brady Bunch. These kids didn't look like the blond haired girls of Carol, or the freckled faces of Mike's boys either. They were all dark skinned. Words had been written across their faces.
"What is this?" I asked. "What am I looking at here?"
"That is a kid's facebook page from the school my kid is supposed to go to once his school closes, a kid from the welcoming school." This mother took a short breath before continuing, "It's a hit list. Once any of those kids crosses the street that divides the neighborhoods, they will be killed. My child is one of these kids in this picture." I'm not even five foot three, and this mom was smaller than me. She looked up at me with misty eyes, her voice trembling slightly as she told me, that her child is being targeted for murder.
"Is it that your kid will be crossing a gang line?" I ask.
"No. My child is not in a gang. This is just territory. Kids from one school stay on one side of this street. Kids from the next school stay on the other. Once any kid, gang affiliated or not crosses that street, they have a target on their backs." This mom is patiently trying to get me to understand her world, her reality. For her, CPS school closings is not about utilization or efficiency or saving money, or ipads or air conditioning. It is about life and death.
"Did you see all the "likes" on that post?" I turn my head to face another mother who is with me. She had also seen the image on the cell phone.
“What do you mean?" I asked.
"On that facebook post. Did you notice how many "likes" it got?" I shake my head. No I hadn't noticed. "A lot." this mother added. "A lot of "likes"."
I turn back to the mom with the cell phone. "Let me make sure I am understanding this. This kid from the school your kid is directed to go to next year, the "welcoming" school, has gone public on facebook with a posted hit list? He is openly saying if he sees any of these kids on his side of the street walking to school he will kill them and all of these folks who "liked" this page, this idea, are supporting this, are in favor of killing these children?"
"Yes. Exactly," this mom says. She moves a little closer to me and the quaver in her voice gets a little stronger. "You don't realize how stressful this is for me, for my child, for my family. That is my child's face in that picture. Someone wants to kill him." She is right. I cannot imagine how stressful that is.
"Have you gone to the police?" I ask.
"Yes." The woman is now joined by a friend, standing at her elbow for support. "We've gone to the area headquarters and they say there is nothing they can do. We've gone to the alderman too. Everyone says there is nothing they can do because no crime has been committed…yet."
"How can someone openly announce they are planning on murdering children and that not be against the law?" I ask. I guess I'm really out of touch.
"No one cares" the mom says. "That's the thing. No one cares." She stares down at her child's face on the small screen and touches it lightly with her finger. She is joined by yet another CPS parent, a father who knows of her story.
"You need to go to the Board of Ed.,” he says. "It'll be hard. It's real hard. You have to try to sign up in advance to get your two minutes to talk and hope you make it onto the public speaking list, but you should try". The woman nods her head in agreement. Of course it will be hard, and of course she will try. It is her child's life on the line.
"You need to take this to the media, to a reporter." I offer. I'm not that hopeful that the Board of Education will do much to help her. I still can't believe the police turned her away.
"We need to go," another parent says. She's right. It is a half day of school today. We all showed up to protest, but now all have to get back to our neighborhood schools to pick up our kids early. The mother I've been talking to holds her cell phone close to her face, staring at the picture of her child in that tic tac toe as she and her friends walk away.
I know school closings are a complicated issue. I know there is no easy solution to balancing cost effectiveness with education in a district as big as CPS. Regardless of school performance, of graduation rates, of test scores, of class size, shouldn’t the mayor and the Board of Education put the lives of the children ahead of any budget? Shouldn't they be made, like doctors, to take the Hippocratic oath before they start incising schools from the landscape? When is comes to children, should not the primary concern be...to first do no harm?