The plague of gun violence. A life unfinished.

Sylvester Veal

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By Lee R. Talley, proud retired teacher. Lee R. Talley is  retired educator who has transitioned into independent filmmaking.  He is currently working on, “Just Another Kid,”  a film about those left behind who must deal with the effects of gun violence.

We buried one of my best students on Friday, January 31, 2020.

I am angry.  I am upset.  I am mad.  I’ve shed a river of tears since I got the news.  Though his church service offered some solace, I can’t stop thinking about him.  And every time I do I just shake my head.

Sylvester Veal Jr. was murdered on Jan. 16th in Dallas, TX.  He was leaving his church later in the night after prayer group.  The two alleged shooters, a 22-year-old female and 23-year old male, shot him several times and left him for dead at 1611 Pine Street.   The only solace I have is that these two were quickly arrested and charged with capital murder.

I’m so tired of all the senseless gun violence plaguing our lives.  I’m tired of a society that seems to place the continual lessening on the value of human life.  I keep asking myself, “When will this end?”  “When did we let there be such little regard for human life?”

I first learned of Sylvester’s murder in phone call from Donald Conley Jr., another one of my best students who graduated the same year.  “What?  How?  When?”  The words stumbled out amidst a long stunned silence.  This is not supposed to happen to a vibrant 33-year-old.  Not to such a wonderful young man.

This was a chance encounter late on a Thursday night.  Sylvester never met his murderers before.  They were randomly driving around looking for someone to rob.  Some may say that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  I hate that line of reasoning.  No, he was in the right place at the right time.  Like everyone one of us, Sylvester was living his life and going about his day.  He was right where God wanted him to be.  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I’m an emotional person.  I’m most passionate about kids and senseless gun violence.  I try to understand how and why this happened, but I know I never will.  After all these years I’ve come to the realization that I will never understand how someone can shoot and murder another person in cold blood.  I don’t think this way.  No decent person does.

What I do know is that the world was robbed of an outstanding young man who loved life.  Robbed of what he would have accomplished.  Robbed of those lives he would have touched.  The joy, the laughter, the comfort, the love.  Sylvester will never have the chance to become the ol’ sage, to pass his wisdom to the next generation.  He’ll never get a chance to have a wife to gracefully grow old with or know the joys of fatherhood.

I’ve been a kid person all my life.  I was lucky enough to work at Thornridge High School (Dolton, IL), a low-income minority high school just south of Chicago.  We had a lot of great kids who went on to be successful professionals.  Doctors, lawyers, educators, police and firemen, and quite of few actors and musicians.  Sure we had a small percentage of troublemakers and kids that would drive you crazy, but that’s every school.  But 95% of the kids are doing the right thing.   Like all of us, they’re just trying to get by and figure out this challenging world.

During my 30+ years in education I’ve had the pleasure of knowing thousands of young people over my life, in the classroom and community, running activities and coaching sports.  Any teacher will tell you that there are special students you bond with who become like your own kid.  You hope and pray they do well after graduation.  With students of color you pray twice as hard because you know they already have enough going against them.

Some of those kids you keep in contact with and love hearing about their latest successes.  Sylvester was one of those kids that made you want to come to work.  You looked forward to seeing him, looked forward to the conversations, and sharing the laughs while working long hours on afterschool theater productions.  Sylvester was one of those kids that made you feel like your were stealing your paycheck because you were having so much fun.

During his four years at TR I watched Sylvester grow into a mature Senior who graduated from TR in 2004.  He was a good student who loved the Fine Arts, especially doing sound and lighting for all our theater productions.  He thrived on the challenges of getting it just right, most often coming up with solutions that we never imagined.  He also loved painting and drawing, talents that would serve him well later in life.  Sylvester made such a huge impact on the school that he was one of only 12 earning the prestigious designation as a “Senior of Distinction.”

He was also quite the entrepreneur, starting a thriving mixed CD business while also holding down a part-time job at the local Walgreens (sometimes working 30-40 hours-a-week) throughout high school and college.  He was one of the hardest working kids I ever knew.  He also had a passion for religion, volunteering many hours at his church and in the community.

Sylvester had no fear, taking his “show on the road” to the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theater Arts in 2009.  He plied his talents at the Venetian Hotel working as an audio / visual technician with the Blue Man Group.

In 2010, Sylvester relocated to Dallas, Texas, with religion taking a larger role in his life.  A prolific writer, he authored 10 books on spirituality.  He became a motivational speaker as well as increasing his elegant acrylic paintings.

During my conversations with him I’d always ask some version of, “You doin’ the right thing?”  He’d respond with his infectious laugh, “Always Mr. Talley,” delivered with what I knew was a twinkle in his eye and a knowing grin.  I always tried to end our conversations by letting him know how proud I was of him.

It was unimaginably hard to look down into his coffin and see this beautiful young man, impeccably dressed, lying motionless.  All I kept thinking was, “C’mon!  Get up! You’ve got things to do!”  I never imagined that last conversation would actually be the last one.  Older is not supposed to bury younger.  I’m never going to hear his voice again, his laugh again, or the excitement about what he was doing and what was next.

Therein lies my frustration.  Every time I see or hear about a young person being murdered, I wonder, “What’s their story?”  And that’s the problem.  We never hear their story.  They’re a name, a statistic, a 30-second news clip,…just another kid.  Sadly we’ve become numb to all this gun violence.  We have a built-in acceptance of this happening.  Turn on the news, open the newspaper, and there it is again…and again…and again.  We ask if these tragedies will ever end, knowing full well they won’t.

I grew up in Blue Island, Illinois, a small blue-collar bedroom community that borders the Chicago on the south.  I was a baby-boomer of the late-1950’s / early 1960’s.  I only saw two guns while growing up.  One, my next door neighbor’s hunting rifle, the other, a handgun brought to the park by one of the town’s teenage delinquents.  As a kid you could do anything, go anywhere, and didn’t have to worry.  Today that is no longer the case.  And it’s worse in minority communities.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a parent today.  The feelings and thoughts as your child walks out the door.  The knot in your stomach all day long as you await their return to the safe sanctuary of your home.  (Though even today that isn’t always the case with people getting shot while sitting on their couch watching TV.)

I’m older and more reflective now.  I realize how fast life passes, how fragile it is, how it can change in a second.  Too often we never take the time to reflect on what’s important in our life, to evaluate what we’ve accomplished, what goals we still want to achieve, and what truly is our place in the world.

They say time heals all wounds.  But will those close to the victims ever really be at peace?  I’ve resigned myself to the fact that this is world we live in.  We’ve become a society of self-promotion and aggrandizement that takes precedent over caring about the real challenges facing us.  We’ve become the, “Hey, look at me!” selfies and “I have a zillion friends on Facebook” society.

Should we be optimistic that one day the plague of senseless gun violence will be solved?  Do we have a choice?  We just need leaders that have the political courage and moral fortitude to do so.  In the words of the late Congressman Elijah Cummings, “We’re better than this!”

I encourage everyone to visit the National Gun Violence website and light a candle and say a prayer.  Every one of them has a story to tell.  Every one of them has left friends and family behind.  Their lives interrupted.  Their lives unfinished.

As of today, May 7, 2020. there has been 64,615 Americans killed with guns (and counting).  Real people, not just statistics.

We buried one of my best students on Friday, January 31, 2020.



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