Thursday, December 15, 2011

Family, Community Mourn High School Student's Death

A young man approached the lectern at St. Gabriel’s church in Lefferts Gardens two Sundays ago, wearing a sweatshirt featuring a photograph of his friend.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said.

He was speaking to nearly 700 people who had gathered to celebrate the life and mourn the death of Shaquille Jones, the 17-year-old student who was shot and killed a few blocks from the South Shore High School campus on Nov. 18. Every pew was full; additional seats lined the sanctuary’s side walls, and in the back people stood.

He talked about how he had just seen Shaquille at school. How wrong the murder was, how senseless. “It wasn’t even on the agenda,” he said.

His style, his unscripted words, his proximity to the tragedy shattered the protective layers of ceremony, and when he returned to his seat what was left in the air was raw anguish.

Those who knew Shaquille Jones describe him as a stylish, easy-going kid with a fabulous sense of humor. He had recently turned things around at school, improving his grades and attendance. He was poised to join the basketball team and put his considerable talents to use for South Shore. He had no quarrel with the alleged shooter, according to friends, family, and police. He was going to be a father.

* * *

His friends called him Bam, or Breezy, or Bam Breezy. The origins of Bam are obscure, but “breezy” is fitting, because it means cool, relaxed, easy-going.

“He wasn’t a troublemaking kid. He wasn’t looking for problems,” said one of his closest friends, who, like several other students, asked not to be identified by name.

“He was cool in his attitude, cool in his dress, in his friends, in every sense of the word,” said his aunt, Valerie Manzano.

Every night, “religiously,” Manzano said, Shaquille would iron an outfit and lay it out for the next day. He kept his sneakers in boxes and his hats pushed in at the back, as they are at the store. He would shop for Polo clothing online, searching out deals. Kings Plaza was a worthy destination, but Century 21 was better.

Thelma Straker, Shaquille’s grandmother, spoke of how he would make her breakfast on Saturday mornings. Scrambled eggs, sausage, toast. “If anything dropped on me, he would say, ‘Gran-gran, let me come and pick this up,’” she said.

Along with such kindnesses, he would torment his grandmother. “Gran-gran, want to see my six-pack?” he would say, while pulling up his shirt and planting his torso in front of her. “Gran-gran, look, the muscles! See the muscles? Feel them!” Straker laughed as she recalled his antics. “He was something else, you hear?”

Shaquille Jones

Shaquille’s cousin Renée Straker, 28, recalled sitting on the front stoop with him and the rest of the family last summer. The two of them tracked the sounds of a nearby ice-cream truck, giddy as if they were much younger. They talked idly about the family’s house in Barbados and the rumors it was haunted. “How many teenage boys do you know,” she said, “who will sit at home on a Saturday afternoon with family, waiting for a Mister Softee truck?”

Shaquille’s mother, Coleen Jones, spoke of their bond in terms of daily rituals. They would talk on the phone in the afternoon, as she made her way back from work in the Bronx, where she is a nurse. “What you want for dinner?” she would ask him. Often they would set out together in the car to get take-out. Always just the two of them. A mother and her only child.

* * *

“Basketball was everything for him,” said Rommel Lovell, 26, a cousin who called Shaquille “the little brother I never had.”

Shaquille’s best move on the dribble: pump-fake; stutter-step right, then go left; finish with a layup called an “up and under.”

“I could not stop his layup,” Lovell said. “I used to hate that about him.”

Shaquille’s love affair with basketball began at the age of 3, when “making a basket” in a toy hoop became his favorite task. Later, in elementary and middle school, he found a mentor in coach Al Charles, who drove him to exhibition games at places like Riis Park while talking about how to make smart choices in life.

“He had a great heart. I loved him,” Charles said. Over the last few years, they had lost touch, but Charles kept tabs on him from a distance. “He had a lot of potential,” Charles said. “He made good decisions with the ball.”

The coaches at South Shore were aware of Shaquille’s talent, but for reasons that are not entirely clear he did not play on the school team during his first two years of high school. Lovell, his cousin, thought that attendance issues might have disqualified him. “All he has to do is show up,” was what the school’s principal told Lovell when he met with her last year. (The school’s basketball coach and other school officials declined to comment for this story.)

But this year, his junior year, Shaquille was going to play, according to friends and family members. His attendance had improved dramatically; he was getting to school on time; and his grades were up as well, with fewer Cs and more Bs. Shaquille thought that being on the team would help keep him out of trouble, according to a close friend, and he also hoped to qualify for college scholarships. He died less than two weeks before South Shore’s first game of the season.

His friends say the newfound sense of responsibility was due to the fact that he was going to be a father; his girlfriend is now five months pregnant. The day before Shaquille died, he talked to his friend on the phone for half an hour. The main topics were the baby and plans for a shower.

Manzano said that hearing about the pregnancy “wasn’t the best feeling” initially. “But he showed that he understood the responsibility of it,” she said.

In September, Shaquille wrote an essay called “My Goals.” He wanted to go to a four-year college, find a full-time job, get married. “I also want to get a nice house,” he wrote. “I don’t really care about a big gigantic house I just want a good size, nice on the inside house.”

Meanwhile, he wanted a job and a driver’s license. He wondered how one went about working in construction. A few days before he died, his father took him out in his car for an informal road test.

“He couldn’t wait to turn 18,” Manzano said. A few college brochures had begun arriving at the house, and he talked with Manzano about the relative merits of a local school versus going away. He thought about finding a school near his girlfriend, who had moved with her family to Virginia.

* * *

Towards the end of the memorial service, Rev. Sully Guillaume-Sam, the associate priest at St. Gabriel’s, took the lectern. “People are not only sad, people are upset,” he said.

Guillaume-Sam spoke of the gun violence which claims the lives of young black men in New York City at an alarming and wildly disproportionate rate. His homily was built on a passage in Exodus, where God assures Moses that He has heard “the groaning of his people.”

In Brooklyn, the priest said, “God has heard the cry of our youngsters saying, ‘We are not safe; we are in trouble; we cannot be in the streets; we are not free.’”

“The situation can change and must change,” he added.

Mitchell Jones, Shaquille’s father, spoke briefly after Guillaume-Sam, and echoed his sentiments. “We have to get these guns off the streets,” he said. “Please, I’m begging you guys.”

The crowd moved into the church basement to share a meal. There were trays of rice and peas, long lines snaking around the tables. At some tables the mood was festive; at others, somber. Mitchell Jones played the role of host. Shaquille’s mother, Coleen, sat quietly upstairs, near the church’s front door. Next to her sat Shaquille’s girlfriend. They held hands.

The next morning, the casket was opened for a final viewing. There was a basketball autographed with messages from friends. There was a Pittsburgh Pirates hat, size 7 3/8, and there were the flags of the United States and Barbados. There was Shaquille Jones, in a navy suit — there were his prominent eyebrows, and the moustache he had been so proud of. But the likeness was, of course, strained and grotesque. “Whoever did that should be fired,” someone said.

After the burial, the series of people and tasks to deal with — the coroner’s office, the police, the church, the funeral home, the well-wishes, media inquiries, out-of-town relatives — slowed down. Coleen Jones said she is surviving “minute by minute.” She isn’t speaking much.

“Whoever take my grandchild from me, I hope they meet with it,” said Thelma Straker, Shaquille’s grandmother. “Each time I think of it, water come out my eyes.”

A version of this article was published in the December 15th, 2011 edition of the Canarsie Courier, on page 3. Here's the online version and pdf of the print version.

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