"Either write something worth doing or do something worth writing."
-Benjamin Franklin

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ismael and Denise: Rising Above

As you know, I moved to Virginia last year. Before that, I was involved in Teach For America at Animo Inglewood High School in Los Angeles and taught Writing Composition and Reading to 9th and 10th graders. I stayed on after my commitment because I fell in love with the students.

These students were from the hood, as they themselves like to say "Inglehood." Most first generation college-bound, they had been educationally underserved almost all of their lives. The academic achievement gap resulting from such under service was astonishing to witness first hand. However, despite their harsh circumstances and challenges that most of them thought was normal, every day life, never in my life had I received so much love from teenagers. Conversations in the hallways, talks after school, gifts, thank you notes, mutual respect, always hellos and smiles from the minute I walked into the school... we really were an Animo Family.

Denise and Geo
I grew close to so many students that when I had a baby and my husband needed to relocate to DC for work, leaving was a devastating transition for me. I had learned so much from the scholars that daily repeated the unified creed at the start of each class... "we are strong. we are brilliant. we will succeed."

And I saw success. I won't go into too many details, because this post is not about all of my students collectively. But I did indeed see students who had never before thought of themselves as writers, as talented, as college-bound, find a different life trajectory for themselves and fight every day to achieve it.

Ismael and Gerry
Last week I got news about two of my favorite students. This news was nothing I could have anticipated. I write this post with grief in my heart because Denise Gomez and Ismael Jimenez, bound for great things and full of angelic vigor and motivation, passed away unexpectedly in a terrible accident.

A dear teacher friend texted me the morning of the accident telling me what happened. I guess it was all over the news in California. Immediately, I got on my teacher Facebook. In unbelief, I scrolled through their peer's posts stating that Ismael and Denise were on the charter bus with a scholarship program headed to visit Humboldt University. They were on their way with other high-achieving seniors in the inner-city LA area to evaluate if Humboldt was the right fit for them this fall. A FedEx truck crashed into the bus and then it exploded. 5 kids were dead and only one was named at this point. Their friends pleaded that we pray for them, that they were all right.

"No. This isn't real."I thought. "They will make it." A sense of peace washed over me. They had to make it. The odds were in their favor. They had so much to live for.

Hundreds of prayers, pleadings, and even feelings of peace didn't make the circumstances turn out as planned.

6 hours later, at 12 am, I received word that Ismael and Denise had both died.


It's been a week of tears, doubts, heartache, and confusion. The only way I can really express my inner feelings is to share what Denise and Ismael have meant to me, what they mean to me, and a bit about my beliefs. I'm recreating conversations and details from the nightmarish week to bring to light what impressive individuals we've lost.

After finding out, I didn't know what to think or do. I just messaged Ismael out of habit maybe. I didn't know how to cope.

Izzy was this bright-eyed, smily, as cute as a button 9th grader. He was actually one of the first student's to get the "Don Quixote Award" in my class, a weekly award given to the student that stood above the rest. He was exceptional.

The third week of school I got this e-mail from him. I share it to show what kind of kid writes his teacher a letter like this.

Dear Ms. Evans

Whenever i walk into your class i enjoy the many activities that you assign us. You always have a great positive attitude and your class is so much fun. You support us a lot and always tell us not to give up, which is why you make us read the scholars creed. Your class room is very organized and brings joy to the class. I hope to keep enjoying your class and am looking forward in having a great year!

-Ismael Jimenez

Even though he didn't have the highest reading score coming into my class, he didn't just meet our class goal of 1 year reading growth, he grew 2 reading levels by the end of the year. He was convinced that he would not only be a reader, he would be a dang good one. He knew that if he didn't, he wouldn't be able to take art class that next year, and art was his passion. He was in my office hours at least once a week to spend more time reading and getting ahead on his assignments. He kept me posted on his art achievements, what was new with school, when he got into an AP class, and how life was. At least once a week, he would stop by my class to say hi. His unassuming, darling demeanor had many a girl revealing to me their crushes on him and how they wished they could date him. He treated everyone he met like they were a million bucks.

Nancy and Ismael picking up trash at Santa Monica Beach

One day after school he brought in a beautiful painting he had done. Then, to my surprise, he turned it around and showed me that it was for me. I was beyond touched. It hung in a special place in my room and now hangs in my office.

Well, he passed the reading course with flying colors and took art. From there he had great teacher mentors that helped him apply and attend a special art program at the nearby college while still in high school. I bought my tickets for his class graduation 2014 this June, couldn't wait to see him. I am numb as to why such an angel had to leave this earth early.

His below memoir from freshman year touched my heart. The pain he faced from his cousin's death was utilized for good, to help others and help his family. In his words: "What we have in our lives is always here for a reason...."

After he was gone I spent hours on the internet and phone, connecting with the kids and those friends I knew were especially close to him, to make sure they were doing okay. We shared memories and moments. Myrna, one of his best friends from freshmen year, sent me this message that meant so much.

Well, he continued to teach me. He was grateful to everyone he met. He knew how to make others feel valuable. He truly loved his fellow man.

Seeing pictures of the horrific accident, I was hoping that they had gone quickly. Maybe in their sleep, with their IPODs in their ears, unaware of the circumstances leading to their passing. When I read this article the next day about what happened the last moments of Izzy's life, the tears welled up in my eyes. While I was amazed, I was not surprised.

"High school student Ismael Jimenez, 18, lost his life in last week’s fiery bus crash in Orland, Calif., while helping other students save theirs, an official said late Sunday.

Jimenez, a senior at Amino Inglewood Charter High School, busted open a window at the front of the bus as it burned and started lifting other students out.

“Ismael will be remembered as someone who forever affected the lives of young people he barely knew," Green Dot Public Schools CEO Marco Pertuzzi said in a statement. 'He was indeed a hero.'"

Here are a few articles talking about heroic Ismael.

"Greater love know no man that this..." John 15:13

Denise deserves the same attention. She was a beautiful, reserved, kind, hard-working perfectionist in my Writing Composition class. She was excellent in everything she did. She was respectful, pleasant, willing to adapt, and had big dreams. After having interacted with hundreds of students, I would say she really was a model student.


Denise was going to drive with her father up to Humboldt, but she insisted on him not having to so he could save money.

Below is her portfolio letter to me reflecting on the course of the year. Her work ethic is inspiring.

Below is an excerpt from Denise's memoir. 

Denise and Suzanne

Denise and Ismael were voted homecoming Prince and Princess sophomore year. I took this great shot of them after they won the award. At Animo, students have to be nominated first by the teachers and then by the students. Loved by all. 

The outpouring of love to the families has been extraordinary. I am so grateful for the example of community members and friends that have given what they've had to help support the funeral costs and other expenses.

In just four days, people have raised more than $50,000 for their families.

Despite all of the pain, I do take comfort in knowing that because Christ lives, we will too. I have been able to feel in a personal, real, and powerful sense that this is not the end for Ismael or Denise. That God loves them profoundly and their families.

Another former student, Evelin, Ismael's sister, slept in the same room as her brother for 18 years. Every morning since the accident she has had to wake up and realize he isn't coming back. However, she has been open about sharing her faith that God has somehow comforted her during this time and given her strength.

Why were they taken from this life so early? Why did they work so hard to have it all swept away? What was going through Ismael's mind when he gave his life for others, and Denise's, who most likely did the same? We won't know. Nor should we. If I firmly believe that this life is but a brief moment in the eternities, I have to believe that their joy in the next life is full because of who they were and the lives they led.

This 3 minute movie below is about as timely as it gets for me right now.

This is not the end for Denise or Ismael. I will see them again. Until then I hope to somehow mirror their dedication, courage, and heroism in my own life to be worthy to hang out again one day.