When it hits close to home

Listen to this article

Yesterday, Police Officer Lesley Zerebny was shot and killed in the line of duty while responding to a domestic disturbance call in Palm Springs. She was just 27 and a mother who had recently returned to work after giving birth to a child four months ago. She and her colleague, Jose Gilbert Vega, will become statistics for the many who track the number of police killed while in the line of duty. When the victim is a former student of yours, she becomes much more than just a statistic. She becomes a punch in the gut that reminds you just how far violence reaches when someone is struck down protecting the lives of others.

Lesley attended Santa Fe Middle School in Hemet, California, a school unlike any other I taught at during my 30-year teaching career. You see, at Santa Fe, from the top down, the staff was more concerned with reaching kids who in far too many cases were given little chance of making it in this world. College was not stressed nearly as much as helping middle school students overcome the plight of their home and neighborhood situation.

Thanks to a wonderful principal, Jim Murphy, and a dedicated staff, Santa Fe students were anything but a statistic. They all mattered, something we took pride in. We learned fast how color was not the issue at our school nearly as much as helping the highest at risk students know they were not alone in this world.

Teachers, coaches, secretaries, yard supervisors, and maintenance staff all worked together to prove we could reach children who probably were not given much hope to succeed in life. It was never easy to teach at Santa Fe, but anyone who did was a better person as a result.

Lesley was fortunate. She came from a strong and supportive family and became someone who not only found her calling in life, but who also found a way to give back to the same kind of people who we tended to get in large numbers at Santa Fe; people who fall through the cracks that life has thrown at them at an early age.

I’ve lost track of how many former Santa Fe kids are dead, incarcerated, or homeless. Three years of middle school support just is not enough for many impressionable teens. However, I was always amazed at the reaction of the former Santa Fe students I would run into before moving from Hemet two months ago. They shocked me at not just remembering me, but how much they remembered about the school and all the people there. They asked more questions about their former teachers than kids I would run into from other schools I taught at. They expressed their gratitude for all we put up with, and believe me, we put up with a lot.

Palm Springs Police Department Chief Bryan Reyes speaking to the media after the two officers died. A third was injured and is expected to recover. (YouTube)
Palm Springs Police Department Chief Bryan Reyes speaking to the media after the two officers died. A third was injured and is expected to recover. (YouTube)

Before there was Boston Strong, there was Santa Fe Strong. You had to teach at that place to really appreciate just how challenging the environment was. Many could not handle it and would leave, but for those of us who could, we share a connection that no other staff shares. I have had teachers and parents from Hemet actually say to me, “You taught at Santa Fe? What was that place like? Are the stories true?”

Still, despite the challenges, you encountered kids like Lesley, and parents like hers, who didn’t run from the challenge, but rather embraced it and thrived as a result.

Some have last names like Parott, Balwigaire, Romerill, and Ulibarri. They have found a way to thrive in life from an environment lesser people would run from. Some used sports, others academics, and still some the arts to immerse themselves in as a way to keep from becoming another adolescent statistic.

It would be easy for me to be angry over the loss of Lesley’s life, just as I was nine years ago when I learned of the passing of Grant Wallenda, another Santa Fe kid who died all too young despite finding a way out of Hemet.

I know nothing about Lesley’s killer and have no desire to know anything because he does not warrant my attention. I know enough to know he did not overcome whatever circumstances life hit him with and now part my tax dollars will go to keep him in prison for the rest of his life.

I only know this: white, black, brown, red, or BLUE, all lives have to matter. This is not a slam against any other movement. You do not need to be black to understand why there is a #blacklivesmatter movement. You do not need to be impoverished to understand the frustration, anger, and lack of hope of those who grow up in homes surrounded by communities who just want to pretend these neighborhoods, and sometimes entire cities, do not exist.

However, if you bury your head in the sand and close your eyes to what is real, it is just a matter of time before you are punched in the gut by our epidemic of violence. It may not be your kid, spouse, or relative who is the victim. It could be your best friend, neighbor, boss, colleague, minister, teacher, or favorite store clerk. It’s just a matter of time before you are dropped to your knees.

If you think there is an easy solution to the violence that grips our culture, you are wrong. Violence is a horrific result from a complex life and in our nation’s case, the end result of far too many citizens, most of whom are good people to the core, who have embraced systemic violence at an early age. Just as systemic racism hurts us, systemic violence is destroying us.

Think of the games you buy your children. Do they rely on the use of a violent solution? Has television become any less violent from when I was a kid and there was concern over the violence in Saturday morning cartoons? What is in the lyrics, films, and sports we rely on to entertain us? I am not suggesting we ban these forms of violence because just like prohibition failed miserably, the same would be true with violence.

Rather than legislating something out of our culture, we become a far healthier and more accepting society if we change ourselves enough to where systemic violence is no longer profitable enough to be sold and shoved in our impressionable minds.

This requires constant work and the determination to continually set an example to everyone. It will not happen over night; systemic violence has been decades in the making. However, change can happen over time.

Just as I see my children, all of whom are near in age of Lesley Zerebny, being more open-minded and accepting to people of color and different lifestyles that my generation was at their age, we can raise an entire generation that in another 25 years time will be less attracted to the use of systemic violence than we are today.

Maybe this sounds a little too far fetched to some. Perhaps there will be those too paranoid to try and will continue to arm themselves. Others are just not disciplined enough to change their love of violent entertainment just as some lack the will power to stick to a diet or exercise plan. However, I think we owe it to Lesley Zerebny and all the other victims of senseless violence in this country, whether they are white, black, brown, red, or blue.

There is enough anecdotal evidence to show as long as we continue doing what we are doing, we can expect more violence. It only makes sense that if we can expect more violence, the odds only increase the likelihood violence will hit closer and closer to home.

This is not a Democratic or Republican problem; it’s a human problem. We have to change and we do not need a government to tell us this; we only need to pull our heads out of the sand and face reality.

Top photo from PSPD Facebook page: Lesley Zerebny and Jose Gilbert Vega