By the time his students were settled at their work spaces, Oak Park and River Forest High School special education teacher Anthony Clark had the article on the smart board, ready for their dissection.
“I asked them to break it down and read it closely, using various literary strategies they were taught. Some of them were making some good connections and engaging in conversation about the choices the young lady made,” he said in a recent interview with Austin Weekly News.
The article was a Chicago Sun-Times report, published August 21, detailing the fatal shooting of Adrianna Reyes, 20, outside a liquor store near Lake and Cicero at around 2 a.m. that morning.
According to media reports, Reyes had been in a black SUV with three other friends — Ronnie Henderson, 18; Valentine Rodriguez, 25; and Bianca Rodriguez, 23 — when Henderson started firing gunshots at another car near the liquor store. Moments earlier, he and some people in the other car had reportedly gotten into a heated argument. During the shooting, armed security guards inside the liquor store came out and returned fire — their bullets striking Reyes twice in the head and once in the arm.
Rodriguez was struck by a bullet that entered his shoulder and exited his cheek, while Henderson was shot in the hand. All three victims were rushed to a nearby hospital, where Reyes died.
According to the latest reports, Rodriguez is in critical condition and Henderson is stable. Both were charged with aggravated assault and murder, among other charges. A third passenger in the SUV, Bianca Rodriguez, 23, was charged with obstruction of justice. Reyes’ murder was among 13 that happened in the city that week. The weekend she was fatally shot, five other people were killed as a result of gun violence in the city.
To many of the students in Clark’s OPRF classroom, Reyes’ death was likely a distant anecdote — even though her murder happened just a couple of miles from the school. But it became more immediate when he revealed that Reyes was his niece. Clark said he wanted to share the tragic news of his niece’s death to reinforce his constant admonitions and to cut through the patina of glamour that layers many of his minority students’ perceptions of the city and its reputation for violence.
“A lot of my students aspire to have ties to the city in regard to their identification. A lot of them want either to be from Chicago or go back there. I feel that a lot of them make light of gang activity,” he said.
Clark said he wanted to show his students how “engaging in certain activities and mindsets can lead you down the wrong road.” He pointed to his incarcerated brother and his longtime girlfriend, who died during an alcohol-related traffic accident last December, as object lessons.
“I try to utilize my own experiences as strategies in my teaching,” Clark said, noting that his decision to be so up open about his private life is predicated on strong personal relationships he’s cultivated with many of his students.
“I’m a proponent of restorative justice and social emotional learning. In any classroom, you have the academic aspect, but you can’t impart academic lessons before you build relationships and some level of trust with students you work with,” he said.
Clark doesn’t hesitate to talk about his own struggles. He said he didn’t find his footing until he was about 30 years old and only after having joined the military.
“A lot of people in my family are from Chicago. Growing up in Oak Park, I feel like a lot of people here really don’t understand what kind of protection this affords you,” he said.
Like his niece, he struggled to find his footing, his identity, his purpose. Unlike his niece, he had moved to Oak Park from Calumet City when he was 7 years old. Reyes, who grew up in Humboldt Park, would never have the chance to look back on her turbulent younger days from the steadier ground of maturity. Where she lived, the kind of mistakes all teenagers make can be the difference between life and death.
“Like many of the students I encounter here at the school, my niece wasn’t engaged in negative behavior, but she was surrounded by people who were,” Clark said. “She went to the store with her friends — that ultimately cost her her life.”
Clark said Reyes was raised by a single mother and an aunt. When her younger sister had a child, Reyes “was always babysitting.” After high school, the 20-year-old got a job to help pay the family’s household bills.
“She was just a sweetheart who had a lot of friends and people who care about her. If you asked her to do something, she’d do it. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for you — minor or major. She was always willing to help out and reach out,” he said.
Clark noted that since getting the dreaded phone call around 3 a.m. last Friday from Reyes’ mother (his sister), he’s been trying to “spin a negative into a positive.” He said he’s started a GoFundMe account to help raise $8,000, the amount of money the family needs to bury Reyes and offset other expenses.
It’s something of a responsibility, Clark said.
“I’m the one who was blessed with opportunities and who moved to Oak Park and now has a career,” he said. “I feel I have to support those in my family who weren’t blessed with the same opportunities.”