A few months ago, I was on my way to work when I passed by La Copa Loca ice cream shop on 22nd and Capp and saw a crowd of kids enjoying the sun, joking and savoring their ice cream outside.
Their faces were familiar because several had taken a 2012 reporting workshop I had volunteered to teach with another Mission Local reporter, Molly Roy, at Buena Vista Horace Mann Middle School.
When I spotted Rashawn Williams shyly looking at me as I crossed the street, I smiled at him. He waved quickly and then a big, bright smile appeared on his face. Usually, when I run into kids on the street I previously taught they tend to look away embarrassed. Not Rashawn.
That would be the last time I saw him. On Tuesday evening at 26th and Folsom Rashawn was fatally stabbed and already police have arrested another juvenile in connection with the murder.
Throughout the day on Wednesday, as I realized that it was Rashawn who had been killed, his face kept popping into my head. It couldn’t have been him, I pretended. I still wish it wouldn’t have been him.
Our class met in David Johnson’s 6th grade homeroom at Buena Vista Horace Mann. Johnson, who is still there, taught Rashawn as well as some of his three siblings.
“He was one of the kids that stuck out,” said Johnson of Rashawn, who was a fan of bold t-shirts that showed he was into music and politics. “I would see that kid go by my door, and I’d think he was going to do something good.”
After one class in which it was difficult to keep the students in line, Mr. Johnson insisted that we give Rashawn room to express himself. During the next workshop we discussed the topics we would cover in our student newscast and Rashawn took the lead.
While some students hesitantly suggested we talk about the World Series, Rashawn’s hand shot up. He wanted to talk about racism and politics.
In the newscast, his response to the question about President Obama’s re-election is clear and precise. “I do not think that they voted for Obama because of his physical appearance because he’s been doing a good job in the United States…in the Americas…North America, to be exact.”
Race and identity were clearly on his mind. We had talked before about personal style and identity. Rashawn, who spoke Spanish, proudly identified as a black Salvadoran.
Rashawn kept his long hair in braids and even as a seventh grader, he often wore a Malcolm X T-shirt. When asked if he knew who that was, Rashawn replied with an exasperated: “Of course.”
When I talked to Johnson on Wednesday, he described Rashawn as competitive and eager to do well in class. “I used to tell him you’re in the ghetto, but you’re still a nerd. You look like a thug, but you’ve got a high GPA.”
Johnson said young black students feel pressure to represent their community but also to stand out academically. Rashawn did both well.
Johnson recalled having what he called the “brains or the braids discussion” with a substitute teacher who assumed Rashawn was “some thugged-up kid.” When he told the substitute that Rashawn had some of the highest grades in the class, suddenly the teacher’s attitude changed.
“He was genuinely a good kid. A lot of people are going to look at this and say it had to do with gangs or whatnot, but that wasn’t him,” Johnson said. “He had a lot going on for him.”
“The school is your safe place, but we can’t be there all the time,” said Johnson about the fatal incident.
Gail Eigl, who was Rashawn’s 8th grade teacher in his last year at Buena Vista, agreed.
“He was a lovely kid. He was a super high-level reader, but he was picky,” she said of the time Rashawn had been too polite to tell the teacher he had not enjoyed reading “The Book Thief.”
Eigl recalled how Rashawn was filled with enthusiasm during a trip in which the 8th grade class visited colleges. “On the college trip, he was so, so happy. He had on his Stanford hat and was so excited,” she said, as tears began to well in her eyes.
Despite Rashawn’s success in 8th grade—he was going to his “dream high school” on a full academic scholarship and playing football—it had not been without challenges. Eigl says that when she was his teacher, Rashawn dealt with some bullying.
“He had a beautiful smile and the most gorgeous hair,” Eigl recalled.
I know what she means. For me, Rashawn’s smile the day I saw the group outside La Copa Loca made my day.