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I Taught the Teenager Who Turned Himself in for Killing Brandoniya Bennett

It is a hard thing to reckon with.
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I was about to head to bed last week when I read that a young man had turned himself in for killing 9-year-old Brandoniya Bennett in her home, just blocks from my 2-year-old’s daycare. Like much of the city, I was heartbroken about the violence that has plagued Dallas this year, embodied by the murder of this beautiful girl.

But as I read, the story gave my heartbreak a new dimension. I had taught the young man who turned himself in for the shooting. His name is Tyrese Simmons, and police say he’d gotten into a feud with a fellow rapper on Instagram. He went to the Roseland Townhomes in Old East Dallas and demanded the man come outside. But Tyrese had the wrong apartment. When nobody came out, he shot into Brandoniya’s home, killing her.

Before I became an editor at D CEO, I was a teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School. I made a point to resist my preconceived notions of students when they started my class. I wanted to show the same love, give the same attention, and expect the same high standard from the student with the hood pulled over his face, slumping in the back of the class as I did for the perky student sitting up front, arm raised in academic salute. But I wasn’t always successful. If I am honest, there was a part of me with a stereotypical expectation for this young black man who played basketball named Tyrese. But it didn’t last long. He spent the year dismantling my first impression in all the best ways.

I remember the way Tyrese sat down in the middle of the room and turned in his well-done assignments on time. I remember how neat his handwriting was, a rarity for the average teenage boy. Other teachers I talked to remember his bright smile as he walked into the room, his greeting as he passed by in the hall, or how he plugged away in the engineering class in our vaunted STEM program.

I am not one to sugarcoat my memories of students, but Tyrese stood out as respectful, kind, and gentle in my class. He was a great student, talented basketball player, and a few years ago I would have put money on him going on to do great things. Less than a year ago, I ran into him coming out of a movie. We said hello and he gave me a hug. He could have pretended he didn’t see me, like so many students have in the past when I have run into them in public. He didn’t do that. My heart breaks thinking about that moment. It made me proud to know him.

When I read his name in the story, I prayed as I scrolled down the page that the mugshot would not belong to the Tyrese Simmons I looked forward to seeing every day in 10th-grade English. But it did.

The world is a broken place, and what happened to Brandoniya is an absolute horror. I can’t imagine what her family is going through, and her family deserves justice. She was the picture of innocence, killed as she played inside her apartment, her nails recently done for the start of school the next week. I hope they find peace.

But I am also torn up about a world where this promising young man ends up turning himself in for capital murder. The dark truth of gun violence is that it can affect families in an instant that previously had no connection. That seems to be the case here. Gun violence, social media, and teenage ego created an appalling storm, and Tyrese grabbed a firearm and made a decision that ended one young life and will forever impact his own. Having compassion for a young man who is a child killer is not a popular feeling, but I am heartbroken for him.

A lawyer friend once told me before jury duty that prosecutors and defense attorneys often want teachers as jurors, because our job is to live in the tension between enforcing the consequences of actions and giving mercy and second chances. Both sides think they can win over the teacher. It is moments like these where that strain can stretch us thin. Right and easy answers are hard to come by.

I chose to teach in Dallas ISD so that I could play a small role in helping students like Tyrese avoid the stereotype and expand beyond the world’s expectations; his violent embodiment of that stereotype gutted me. It seems to get tougher every minute to avoid slipping into nihilistic apathy, but my hope is that tragedy can motivate us to engage the world, people, and policies around us, be generous with our time and resources, and love the ones who are difficult to love. Maybe it will lead to at least one person putting the gun down.

Will Maddox is the editor of D Healthcare Daily and an associate editor at D CEO magazine. 

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