When they were teenagers and on the brink of being grown, Anthony and Tyreese McAllister sat in this gymnasium at Anthony’s alma mater, St. Augustine’s University, cheering for its basketball team, courting.
That’s what college gyms are made for, imploring your team, yelling at the refs, trying to make time.
Gyms were not – repeat, were not – made to hold memorial services for 18-year-old college students who are killed before they’ve even reached their prime.
Yet, on Thursday night when Tyreese and Anthony returned to the gym on the campus of the school from which Anthony graduated in 1988 – Tyreese is a Shaw alum – it was to do just that, to join their daughter’s teachers, friends and classmates in saying goodbye to her, to bask in the love they felt for her, to join them in stopping this genocidal violence.
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The McAllisters’ youngest daughter, Ayana, was killed last month in Washington, D.C. Police don’t know whether it was from a stray bullet, a bullet aimed at someone else or one aimed at no one in particular. Didn’t matter, though, because it killed her just the same as if she’d been the intended target.
How could she have been, though, this 18-year-old criminal justice major who had done all the right things so far and who possibly could have done great things had her life not been stolen? A week and a half worth of phone calls to the Washington police department’s flack hasn’t elicited one returned call.
That’s all right, though. It’s more important that they find the latest person – the latest what the Rev. Nita C. Johnson Byrd called “viperous purveyor of violence” in our communities – than keeping some newspaper writer 300 miles away informed.
The campus gym filled slowly Thursday, as many students – who’d just returned from spring break four days earlier – got reacquainted outside before going inside. Despite the greetings, the mood was not festive, because they seemingly knew now was neither the time nor place for that. This was no basketball game for which they were gathering to cheer their Falcons.
Some of the St. Augustine’s University students looked positively shocked, as though aware that they, as had Ayana McAllister, were doing all the right things – getting an education, trying to better themselves. Yet that was scant protection against a punk with a gun.
Inside, a pall engulfed the gym. The students – somberly for the most part – climbed into the bleachers and sat down. After three decades of doing this, I still haven’t gotten good at intruding upon someone’s private grief. So when I saw students reading the pamphlet – “Moving Through Grief and Loss” – that was handed out along with the program at the gym door, I chilled and left them alone, hoping the pamphlet, and later the words of the Rev. Byrd and school officials could provide some solace.
Some of them looked positively shocked, as though aware that they, as had Ayana, were doing all the right things – getting an education, trying to better themselves. Yet that was scant protection against a bullet.
By the time Ayana’s parents walked in with school officials, the place was packed. The students stood silently, solemnly, as they passed.
Anthony and Tyreese were enveloped by people, enveloped by love, throughout the evening, so I didn’t get a chance to speak with either of them the night of the ceremony. When I spoke to Tyreese the next day, though, they were doing the most “parent” thing imaginable. “We’re at the mall shopping for school clothes with our oldest daughter,” N’dayja, who also attends St. Augustine’s, she said.
“I’m a little dazed right now, so bear with me,” Tyreese said as she told me about the scholarship – for a criminal justice major – they’re starting at St. Aug’s in Ayana’s name and a foundation they want to start to address violence.
After pointing out that her husband is a juvenile probation officer and she is a therapist – “You have no idea how many children our own children have brought to our home for us to counsel,” she said – Tyreese told me that they are seeking a way to work with the courts to help stop young people who’ve committed a violent crime from committing another and to prevent others from committing their first.
“We don’t want to waste our time being angry,” she said. “I want to take it and be productive.”
That’s good, because the whole world should be angry enough for them.