[Love] Letter III: Dear J.


Copyright & Photo Credit: E. Bailin (2014)

The third piece in my series of love letters dedicated to the experiences and people that have touched me over the course of the yearlong seminar entitled, “Youth, Media and Educational Justice.” The latest is a letter to my student who sustained a gunshot wound in the abdomen two weeks ago and how I’ve been processing it all since I found out last week.

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Monday, March 3, 2014


Dear J.,

I hope this letter finds you well.

Well. Such a bland, insignificant word that often claims nothing more than mediocre ties to caring.

How are you feeling?

Feeling. We ask as if physical and mental emotions can be tersely conflated into a one word response like “good.”

We need to do better.

My heart

is heavy.

Heavy—of great weight; difficult to lift or move.

Heavy, a tangible mass, like what we feel when lifting our grocery bags or a small child up from the ground and into our arms

allowing for the contents to settle,

finding their places on the shelves of our hips, in the nooks of our arms and caverns of our eyes.

Bulbous tears have continued to drop from these eyes for the last seven days,

every time I end the second sentence of this story with, “…shot”.

I’ve told eight people about what happened to you.

Eight people have given me their ears, their eyes, their hearts, their hugs, their attention.

They have listened as I’ve unfolded the details of what went down last Thursday night:

                  You’d been shot in the belly.

                  It was gang-related.

                 You were in the ICU for the entire weekend, under a pseudonym so no one could find                    you, but you’re home now, resting.

                You lost three quarters of the blood in your body.

               And when the cops, standing on the steps of their precinct, saw you stumble forward                      towards the ground they rushed over and began interrogating you—asking you whether                  you were high or drunk.

              It wasn’t until they pulled you up to your feet, and you screamed out in pain, that they                      realized you had a bullet in your belly…

I can’t stop thinking about you—there is a stream of still and moving images playing on a loop in my mind, accompanied by an internal monologue of questions,

wondering about the moments building to crescendo—

who spoke the last words, what were they? Does it matter? Are you scared?

But this mentally isolated indie film streaming on my brain waves and plucking at my heartstrings is fabricated, imagined, “flattened by my seeing.”[1]

I have to examine how the “physical structures of our seeing and the patterns of thought these mechanisms create, among them spectating, consuming, and flattening, mis-take the world”[2]

You see, J., I’ve been retraumatizing myself over the course of this week. I continue thinking about this event, imagining not what it must be like to get shot; not even to self-deprecatingly wonder “what I could have done to save you.” No. I keep replaying this moment as my way of connecting with you and to the human emotions associated with trauma.

Because this notion of “gang violence” has become a soapy word in our American vernacular and on the 6 o’clock news.

While we might listen to these reports for an affirmation that a shooting took place somewhere deep in the South Bronx, or in Brownsville, or in the Heights—you know, a place where we “know these things take place” because the kids there are violent, illiterate, dangerous

—we don’t hear these stories, who these young people are,

nor do we pause to think about the institutional forces, the dominant narratives, and the normalized practices that are at play, convincing us that this is simply endemic of certain populations. It’s their problem, not ours.

We must ask ourselves, “Does the multiplicity of seeing tragedy compound the horror

or do the repetitive views overwhelm and desensitize?” [3]

This is the ‘closest’ I’ve been to knowing someone who’s been shot,

and I’m overwhelmingly aware of what a privilege it is for me to say this; for this to be my reality.

It’s not a feeling of guilt or naiveté; it’s the weight of the awareness, of the borders and worlds that I am straddling right now. I am working to reconcile my simultaneous locations in them all, and understanding that reconciliation is really neither feasible nor covetable.

This is difficult knowledge we’re dealing with. [4]

That’s not an excuse or prescription, but rather a description; a naming of place, and space and time that deserves attention and love. Or else the knowledge will become dangerous and polarizing (more so than perhaps it already is).

All this said, I want you to know, J, that I see you.

Though I may sometimes be looking at you…sometimes looking after you.

Please know that more than anything, I’m striving to see with you. [5]

Recover strong, heal well, and be safe.



Even before you got hurt, I would look for you in the hallway every Monday and Thursday–when you weren’t coming to school on a regular basis.

I would stand against the wall, perching my heels at a 45-degree angle against the plaster and linoleum, scanning faces for yours

I would walk up and down the hall once or twice, bobbing and weaving past individuals, groups of friends, squirming through the tight spaces, occupying as much room as they could (and they should—they’ve been locked up in classrooms since 8am).

And for the past month, I’ve come up empty handed every time–no trace of you–yet I still kept looking…

And then today, I hadn’t started my search for you yet, I was going to get settled in my classroom first, then do my rounds.

But just as I was able to place my hand on the doorknob of the classroom, I looked up and there you were.

        Damn. You’re so much smaller than you were two months ago.

I try to make eye contact with you three times from across the width of the hallway, I try to wave, unsure if you see me.

I’m fighting off the guidance counselor who is handing me a survey that my students have to fill out—that asks questions requiring them to place themselves in boxes, to represent their answers with “x”s, forced to “Other” themselves when none of the (a) – (d) choices pertain to them and they have to write their ‘abnormalized’ behavior, belief or practice in—to place themselves back in the boxes that I am so committed to working with them to break out of.

Now I’m making my way towards him, swimming against streams of students—backpacks swinging, sneakers squeaking, laughter so loud, but it all feels so far away.

I manage to ford the hallway and I know that you’ve seen me at this point. You’re clumsily putting your jacket on, pretending to be busy, being a 17-year-old.

You look up and make eye contact with me—I timidly unroll my arms into a curved wingspan, so incredibly unsure if this is ok. If I can come into contact with you, to hug you.

You mirror my limbs, a small smile on your face, and you hug me.

It lasts only a brief moment before we pull back.

I ask you how you are.


I ask you how you’re feeling.


And then, I can’t think of anything else to say. How much do you know I know? How much can I ask? How much would you tell me?

I am not qualified for this shit…

…but that’s alright

because since the last love letter, I’ve realized that my lack of qualifications actually makes me one of the most qualified people to be having these experiences. To have these young people in my life. They are providing me with moments and glimmers of, and access to realities other than mine, which will slowly equip me with the qualifications to know that this “shit” can never truly be mastered, but that it is in the experiences I gain expertise in the willingness of unknowing[6]

[Post-script written in the afternoon following the morning’s love letter.]

[1] Gaudelli, W. (2011, p.1246)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Britzman, D. (1998, cited by W. Gaudelli, 2011)

[5] Gaudelli, W. (2011)

[6] Vasudevan (2010)