My student was shot dead on the first warm day of the year. He is more than a victim.

In Philadelphia and beyond, we need to stop pretending that we don’t know why this is happening — or how to stop it. 

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

He was young; he was Black; he led by example. Antonio Walker was a track star, on the right track — literally. He dreamed of being a professional athlete. He was my beloved student.

Antonio was gunned down March 9, around 7 p.m., on the 5200 block of Pentridge Street in Philadelphia. His death was the city’s 91st homicide this year. By March 22, that number was 110, a nearly 30% rise from this time last year.

Jennifer Hopkins Daugherty (Courtesy photo)

Antonio Walker is a number and a statistic, but he is so much more. Antonio had a bright future up until he was shot on the first warm day of 2021. Most of us had been cooped up for 10 snowy, icy weeks, and amid the pandemic, we had been living in relative isolation for a year.

Commuting on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, I witness the dawn of spring in a spontaneous parade of four-wheelers and motorcycles popping wheelies, waving like celebrities, nodding at runners, bikers, people pushing strollers, and leaping with dogs of all sizes and stripes. Energy fills the air. 

West Philadelphia is a leisurely 12-minute walk from my door in suburban Philadelphia, but it is also a world away. In that space, you pass the Presbyterian church with the “Memorials to the Lost” T-shirt project, honoring victims of gun violence. You see the impromptu stuffed animal memorials strapped to lamp posts. Because in some Philadelphia neighborhoods — especially in North and West Philadelphia neighborhoods — walking outside can be a gamble. 

Antonio Walker came from the safer Packer Park neighborhood, where the view from his deck was the stadium. His neighbors and mentors were professional athletes, and he dreamed of following in their footsteps. I hear a twinge of self-blame when his mom explains to us teachers how when Antonio asked to visit his cousin that beautiful afternoon in the southwest Philadelphia neighborhood of Kingsessing, she thought nothing of it. His mom told us that he worked out every day and was still a dedicated athlete even during the pandemic. 

Antonio Walker dons his track medals. (Courtesy of Jennifer Hopkins Daugherty)

Antonio and his cousin were headed to the track when a car approached. They heard laughter. Shots rang out, hitting them both, Antonio in the chest. He later died in the hospital. His cousin somehow survived. They had never before laid eyes on the shooters, the family said. 

It’s scary for students when their teachers are sobbing. They ask: Why did this happen? The answer: Because the American Dream narrative we’ve all been fed is false hope. We have failed these children. Antonio, his cousin, his friends, and the young shooters, too.  

We remember Antonio together on a school Zoom call, and my students really rise to the occasion. He was “the key runner on the team.” He wore his four gold medals from the Penn Relay, with a smile saying, Yeah, I did this. “He out-ran everyone in the halls, even in his black Tims.” They recalled his victorious dance moves and how he glided into class, handsome but humble, glasses on and ready to conquer reading challenges with contagious dedication. He was called “a young entrepreneur.” “His mohawk was straight fire,” they said. “He taught me to be a vegetarian and love animals.”

A fellow teacher, Sherrill, and I drive together to Antonio’s memorial. It’s almost a straight shot down arterial 63rd Street and the traffic flows swiftly to the vigil at Bartram Field. Sherrill needs both hands to count the number of students lost to senseless gun violence during our teaching careers. “The first one was the hardest,” she remembers. “I sobbed on my hands and knees in that mother’s hallway. I couldn’t get up.”

Hundreds of people in face masks are huddled on Bartram Field. Balloon letters spelling his name are tied to the fence. Students I’ve only seen on Zoom for almost exactly a year were there. Antonio’s mother hugs us with sincere thanks, graciously accepting our condolences. His sister smiles through her mask and whispers, “Thank you for being here.” 

I ask her, “Who’s in your corner during all of this?” 

She says, “You are.” 

We anchor each other. The crowd whimpers, leaning together, and a voice from the center says, “We should never have another mother go through what this mother is going through right now!” 

Antonio’s besties flow around us and each other like hands wringing. Despite the pandemic, we melt into each other’s embraces. Tear-streaked faces turn to the sky, a web of trauma and shattered innocence. Black balloons bob and squeak in the wind, and the crowd counts back from 10 as we release them in a cluster of hope. Voices shout messages for Antonio into the wind. The last of the balloon letters disappear into the evening sweep of clouds. A baby cries. A girl covers her face with her hands. By that Thursday, March 12, there will be numerous other victims at unrelated scenes. More balloon releases.

The night of Antonio’s memorial is balmy, so we sleep with the windows open. I wake with tear-crusted cheeks, still gripped with devastation. I think of Antonio’s mother pleading to reporters that he not be just another number, “He is so much more than that.” I imagine her bravely navigating grief, gazing at the stadium. 

What strikes me is what we already know: that gun violence is racist, that racism is violence, that we do not live in a meritocracy where perseverance, talent, and good choices are the ticket. Instead, gun violence is normalized in certain neighborhoods where structural inequalities continue to devastate whole communities. We know that many people who not directly affected seem to ignore it all. 

Since Antonio was murdered, there have been others in our school community killed by violence, including a graduate, a father, brothers, and friends — all in the past two weeks. 

In Philadelphia, the spike in homicides in 2021 is undeniable. In 2020, there were a reported 499 homicide victims, which is one shy of the record 500 set in 1990. Juvenile homicides are up, too. The warm weather has been a contributing factor, but gun violence is a symptom of societal rage coming out sideways, and right now the city is exploding. What are we doing about it? 

We owe it to Antonio and all children like him to stop pretending we don’t know why this is happening or how to stop it. We must be better. Now.

Jennifer Hopkins Daugherty, a middle and high school reading and writing teacher at Freire Charter Schools, worked with Antonio to improve his writing in eighth grade (before the pandemic) and was his ninth grade reading teacher (during the pandemic) in 2020-21.