Walking into a funeral home on Mt. Prospect Avenue was the last way I thought I would be starting my summer of 2008. But there I was, surrounded by colleagues of Barringer High School, remembering the life of Sujeiti Ocasio.
I don’t have one negative memory of Sujeiti. She was funny, upbeat, and ready to find her place in the world. In fact, the last memory I have of her was her coming by my classroom with a friend to ask if I could help her write her resume. Mind you, I was in the middle of teaching a class and I knew it wasn’t her lunch period, but my normally strict, serious teaching persona responded, “Go back there and log in. Then, I’ll come show you how to do it, but you have to be quiet.” She was appreciative, and after I showed her how to find and use a template in Word, she and her friend kept busy for the remainder of the period. I checked in with her a few times, looked it over when she was done, and gave her some paper to print out a few copies.
I found solace in this memory as I sat in the overflow room of the funeral home. Quiet as summer rain, the volume never reached above a solemn hum. Family and friends whispered to others sitting close, or didn’t speak at all. Each time someone new walked in, I would look up, trying my best to smile with my eyes. These were the only muscles in my face that seemed to work. The entire experience was surreal. How could this have happened? Damn, she was a good girl. Sujeiti didn’t deserve to die.
All of this, and more, rushed into my mind as I sat at the table waiting to introduce myself at tonight’s Newark Anti-Violence Coalition Meet and Greet. Almost everyone had a personal story to tell about how gun violence had taken the life of a family member or friend. During open discussion, individuals shared the work they have been doing and offered ideas for further work to be done. This includes ideas for how we can attack the issue of senseless violence at its root. I think member Natasha Allen said it well: “You’ve heard the saying that some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Well, some people are born with a sword in their hand, and they think that’s the only way to go about solving problems.” We cannot allow our children to be exposed to violence, sex, drugs as a norm, then turn around and expect them to act any differently than what they see. Whether one ends up in the role of victim or perpetrator, we must recognize how the prevalence of violence in the media and in our communities is a detriment to the psyche.
Sujeiti was killed within weeks of the day she came by my classroom. Murdered at her own home, at her own graduation party, by another young woman, Nicole Guyette, who should have graduated that night as well. It was a senseless killing over name calling. The kind of name calling I see and hear on a daily basis inside schools. Every instance should be taken seriously. I’ve already seen how it can end.
Each day is an opportunity to start anew. Tomorrow is no different, except that some courageous people who love this city have organized a symbolic event to help us heal our communities and say enough is enough: The Funeral to Bury Violence in Newark. At 11am, five processions will originate from each of the wards, culminating at Lincoln Park at 1pm where the funeral will take place. Tomorrow, I will walk for Sujeiti AND for Nicole because they are both victims of our over-aggressive society. I don’t want any more stories to tell about someone I knew. And I hope you don’t either.
PROCESSION STARTING LOCATIONS
North Ward: La Casa de Don Pedro, 39 Broadway
South Ward: Valley Fair
East Ward: Riverview Terrace
West Ward: Sanford Ave & S. Orange Ave, Sacred Heart Church
Central Ward: CityPlex Theater, Springfield Avenue