This is an excerpt from an ongoing blog about 21-year-old Lam Vo, a former student of Oakland Voices correspondent Debora Gordon.
As a teacher in Oakland, I often face the sense of unease as each new shooting or homicide is reported. I seem to read every few days the news of another shooting, and I always fear that I will encounter the name of a former or even a current student as the victim or the perpetrator.
In December of 2010, I was saddened to read the name of Lam Vo -- a student I had for two and a half years. He's now serving time in a California prison for a shooting in East Oakland. He has given me permission to share his story.
My blog will explore Lam's trajectory from good student to felon. I'll also document my effort to understand our criminal justice system as I consider my role as a teacher in the life of a young person.
Fall 2007: Lam writes about his crime
When school resumed in September 2007, English teachers across the district invited their students to participate in an essay contest sponsored by famed author Alice Walker. The theme was "How I Changed My Life," and my students all submitted essays, including Lam.
He wrote about the events that had landed him in juvenile hall for a couple of weeks at the end of the previous spring.
The essay described an evening in May or June of that year in which he was riding around Oakland in a car with some other teenage boys he claimed not to know very well. At some point during long the way, they gave Lam a gun, and the boys together attempted to rob a corner store.
I no longer recall if they actually robbed the store or were arrested during the robbery. But at some point, they were apprehended and sent to juvenile hall. That's when his mother came to see me at school and attempted in broken English to explain where Lam was. After that, he sent me an email.
In the essay, he wrote that while in detention, he was observing the behavior of the other boys -- their arrogance and their disrespect of the juvenile hall staff and others assigned to work with them. I can recall my own experience teaching at juvenile hall on 150th Avenue in San Leandro, in the summer of 1993, where I actually found the boys remarkably cooperative. But perhaps things had changed in the ensuing 15 years or so.
Observing these other boys, Lam wrote that he found their behavior to be foolish and pointless. He could see that they were making their own situation much worse, and he made up his mind at that point to go straight by focusing on school and staying out of trouble.
I read his essay with dismay and hope. I also really did not know how much of the essay was the unvarnished truth. Did he really not know the boys he was riding with that night? Did he really not know they were planning to rob a store? Did he really not know they were going to give him a gun? Maybe the only part I really believed was that he was going to get more serious about school.
But maybe I only believed that because I really wanted to believe it. Time would prove otherwise.
Read more about Lam's story by visiting the Oakland Voices website at www.oaklandvoices.us.
Oakland Voices correspondent Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and nonviolence activist. She moved to Oakland in 1991 to become a teacher and has taught in the district for almost 20 years.
More OV online and all the time!
Go to www.oaklandvoices.us to read Edward Cervantes' story touching on his revelations about the origins of the Black Panther Party. Check out Sheila Blandon's piece on how tattoos are more than body art -- they honor lost loved ones. Read Sabirah Mustafa's piece on Michael Gibson, a former drug dealer turned program director and youth mentor.