By Alyson Martin
Now, the bullet in Keanu Griffin’s leg will always set off the scanners that search her and her classmates for weapons and drugs each morning before school.
If you ask her, it doesn’t really matter to her either way. The metal detectors are just a cyclical irritation, a daily delay before she drops her 2 year-old son Kahlil off at the school nursery where he plays with eight other toddlers. They’re all the sons and daughters of teenage students at Aspirations Diploma Plus in East New York.
Then Keanu heads to class. At Aspirations Diploma, most of the students hate that the principal decided to bring in stricter security after gang tensions surfaced earlier this semester. And the new policy prohibiting cell phones just doesn’t make sense, Keanu said. But that doesn’t really matter to her, either; she shoves her Blackberry down her shirt and keeps her phone in school, texting by her side when she thinks teachers aren’t looking.
Keanu, who is 18, has missed quite a bit of class lately and is still playing catch up. She was shot in the early hours of Easter morning. She was trying to get food at TGI Friday with friends when she was caught in the middle of an annual rite of mayhem in Times Square that Mayor Bloomberg has called “wilding.” She felt a searing burn in her leg and realized she had been shot on her upper left thigh. “I got shot,” she remembered yelling.
Keanu tries to make it to class on time, but sometimes just can’t seem to walk fast enough. She trudges through the hallway like she always has to press on through some kind of obstacle. With her son on her hip, her limp is even more exaggerated. Keanu looks older than 18. If you talk to her for more than 10 minutes, she’ll probably roll her eyes or laugh at least once. Much of what she says is sarcastic, but she smiles quickly. On her way to lunch one recent afternoon, she stopped to yell to one of her friends, another student at the school. He was crouched on a chair with a walker in front of him. He’s been shot twice. Keanu leaned on the walker and whispered to him—it was one of her few quiet moments that day.
Aspirations Diploma will see its second graduating class this year. Since opening its doors to transfer students (mostly kids with no other place to go), three have been shot—one fatally. That student, Kevin Leblanc, is memorialized on a wall mural just past the principal’s office. He would have been the first student to graduate from Aspirations Diploma. The principal, Matt Malloy, knows of three other students who have been “shot at,” people who are targets.
The kids at Aspirations Diploma have seen and lived with violence all of their lives. It is in their jokes and mannerisms. Students react to each other by making gun shapes with their hands; the word “pop” (as in, shoot) has a permanent, recurring role in their vocabularies. Two murals were finished at Aspirations Diploma in March. On one side, someone is shown walking away from a gun over the word “humanity” painted. On the other side are the consequences of using a gun: an embrace, handcuffs and the word “genocide.” The artist of the mural asked students what they thought of guns and that’s how the genocide part of the wall was created.
Keanu, like almost everyone she knows, has friends who have been shot. Principal Malloy, estimates that students affiliated with gangs make up about three-quarters of the school. On any given day, students in red shirts and red baseball caps (the colors of the Bloods) and blue shirts and caps (Crips) walk down the hallway past Malloy’s office on their way to class. One student, who waited in line in the cafeteria and ordered French fries for lunch, wore red Converse All-Stars with red laces in addition to his red t-shirt and hat.
In this neighborhood, shootings can be as common as playground fights can be at other schools. Some have been killed and some survived. Some will probably have a mechanical gait for the rest of their lives—one of Keanu’s three fears. She now says she can never return to Times Square, where the evening started the night she was hit with a stray bullet.
“I’m never going to 42nd Street again. Bad memory. Bad,” she said. Her other fear is one of those that she doesn’t like telling people because she’s a little embarrassed that it’s more overpowering than the others. She’s always hated feet. She hates them with or without socks, in sandals or sneakers. The last time she cried was when someone stuck his foot too close to her.
Keanu is more positive about her future than some of her friends. There are 240 students at Aspirations Diploma. Malloy hopes that 60 will graduate. Keanu hopes she’s one of them. She keeps her head down and away from gangs at school and only sticks by her closest four or five friends “who have her back.” Staying away from gangs, that’s her way out, she says.
“I’m not in any of that stuff. I don’t want to be in a gang. It’s like putting your whole life on the line,” Keanu said in the school library during a recent lunch break. She had just come from the school’s nursery, where her son Kahlil was, as Keanu said, finally behaving.
Jawara Johnson, or “Ja,” the school’s safety coordinator, sat in the hallway and encouraged students like Keanu to get out of the halls and into classrooms. He usually prefers to sit on days like this, when the air is moist and rain is coming. Johnson was shot a few years ago in Brooklyn right after he stepped off a bus and onto the street and now the lead in body makes his bones feel like they are rubbing together. Wrong place, wrong time, like the other students who have been shot or stabbed, he said.
Johnson addressed every student by name. It’s the most dangerous time of the day at Aspirations Diploma, where students’ tensions are most likely to come out, Malloy says. The vice principal and school resource officers were sent to the exits, where Johnson told the students who had their phones confiscated that morning to head to the library to claim them. Then he got up slowly and walked to one of the school’s exits.
“These kids go through pretty rough stuff, but they have to know what life is like. I try to tell these kids that life is hard, but you just have to keep trying,” he said, ushering students outside.