On Losing a Student

“I understood teenagers and their sense of invincibility, their YOLO mantras and their risky behaviors. But it’s impossible to understand their deaths.”

An undated school portrait of Deion Fludd, center, hangs next to photos of his siblings in his mother's home. (Andrew Hinderaker)

The red markers started to disappear from classrooms. In some of the brand-new marker boxes, the count became seven instead of eight. It was always the red one missing. We, the teachers, hadn’t thought much of it initially; rarely do we end the school year with the same amount of supplies with which we begin. But that was changing now that the students needed red to make corrections and complete their schoolwork—or, for some, to color in the hearts they’d scribbled on love notes. A blend of orange and yellow wouldn’t suffice as a substitute, so we were determined to find the culprit.

But even before investigating, red writing started showing up all over our classrooms. On desks. On folders. On looseleaf. On whiteboards. It became clear that the red markers had a new owner. And that owner he left us little opportunity to apply our Law and Order sensibilities: He used the red to tag his name. And by tagging, I don’t mean the kind of elaborate graffiti that once covered the murals at 5 Pointz in Queens—it was just his handwritten name. If his handwriting were a font, it’d be pretty close to Comic Sans: child-like, nothing distinct or loud—besides the color.

That’s how he was, too. Deion was not one of the more boisterous students in my ninth-grade English class. He was a tall and skinny tree, a student who didn’t take up much space. I had one student who’d often ask her classmates to smell her armpit the instant she entered the classroom. Or I had another who’d always spend the class loudly complaining that I was assigning them “mad work”—too many handouts for her to handle. Deion wasn’t like that. He never caused much fanfare upon entering, even though he typically arrived late. He would come in like Casper, typically finding one of his friends—a girl who’d often leave her headphones in during class while reading Crank—and plop right next to her. (Few students cared that I had a seating chart.) After a few minutes of schoolboy flirtations, he’d be ready to participate in the freewriting sessions I held every class, scribbling in his makeshift notebook: looseleaf in a red folder, red marker in between blue lines. Even though he’d arrive when half the period was over, he always tried to make up for lost time.

To me, it didn’t matter if he was “borrowing” the marker, as long as he was doing the work. But of course, the principle behind borrowing is that the item should be returned. Because I was his advisor on top of being his teacher, I figured it was my duty to remind him of this principle. One day, while the armpit girl was asking for deodorant and Ms. Mad Work was taking an in-class selfie, I pulled up a chair next to Deion. I told him that I couldn’t help but notice that he really liked red. He gave a shy, half-crescent smile, followed by a long “Yeahhh.” I asked him if there was any reason he liked red. I worried I was moving onto turf where I didn’t belong, but he was polite and responded, “Miss, you don’t want to know.” The next day, a few red markers showed up on my whiteboard ledge.

The students always complained that I played favorites. They pointed out that I rarely raised my voice at Deion—even when he wandered through the hallways instead of coming into class, even when he failed to do his homework. Even when he stole the red markers. But that’s because he eventually told me his story. I can’t recall exactly when or against what backdrop, but I remember the conversation happened a while after the markers returned.

He started with things that weren’t surprising. He told me that he loved to play basketball in Red Hook or at Sunset Park and that he wanted to be on the school’s team—one day, maybe the NBA. I had already suspected his love for the sport because his shoes always had a set of dirt graffiti on them and because that half-crescent smile would appear whenever he talked about ball. Though he mentioned the NBA, he didn’t have the same blind faith in his skills as some of his peers did in their own. He knew that it was like winning the Lucky 7s.

When I dug deeper to learn about his principles, he told me not to be offended by his lateness to class. He needed his free time in the hallways or at lunch because freshman year was the vacation he didn’t get to have. The summer before entering high school, he told me, he’d been locked up. It had something to do with stealing, or running away, but he emphasized it wasn’t a reflection of his true self. He said that his brother had already gone to jail the year before and that he didn’t want the same for himself. Not for his mom. But he spent his summer there anyway. I didn’t know what to believe, but it was obvious that he had done his time. I couldn’t help but think about the woman I called weekly to talk about Deion’s Fs. His mother would sound worried and courteous, but busy.

That same year that Deion had gone to juvie, his father had died on the couch, right in front of him. Even if it was cancer—something he was somewhat prepared for—it struck him. Deion didn’t elaborate on any of these stories, but I filled in the blanks; that’s what English teachers do. I calculated that Deion had struggled with a series of mistakes and misfortunes for a long time. I calculated that he was going to fail his classes, and that I was also going to fail him because his stories had driven me off my savior complex. I wasn’t fit to save anyone. My life was a Judy Blume series compared to his. The most trouble I had ever gotten in was for sitting at a lunch table that started a food fight. And death had not even begun to make its way at my door yet. I thought about his mother, the woman who could never make it to parent-teacher conferences, and did not reach out to her after these stories. I also didn’t care if he kept those red markers forever, if that’s how he wanted to vent.

A year later, I heard rumors that Deion had transferred to another school. Maybe it was from the bloody fight that left another student with stitches and him with anger-management courses. Teachers always remember the troublemakers. They carry a teacher’s night sweats with them. His disappearance left a void, but six years into teaching, I was used to not having closure.

On the first day of school of what would have been Deion’s junior year, I was flooded with taps on my shoulders and students frantically asking me, “Miss, miss, you hear what happened?” They started tagging their binders and homework with “#Deion4eva” in red and I knew that this was not the closure I had wanted. I tried consoling the students with hugs before I started consoling myself. Amid the blurred explanations of what had happened, I trusted the one the school told me in a private meeting: Deion died because he was running around at a subway station and fell onto the tracks, where he was accidentally hit.

I felt slammed by a train. I pictured Deion with his sideways grin, weaving in and out of tracks, daring it to catch up. I understood teenagers and their sense of invincibility, their YOLO mantras and their risky behaviors. But it’s impossible to understand their deaths.

A memorial for Deion outside of his mother’s home in Brooklyn, NY.  (Andrew Hinderaker)

As my own way of grieving, I snuck in conversations with students and staff members in between lessons to exchange memories about Deion. We talked about how it was too early. How, though he was little mischievous, he was generally a nice kid. Afraid that I’d forget, I even Googled Deion and found an idyllic picture of him in 2009, with oversized yellow and blue plaid shorts and a large Navy tee, his big white teeth facing the sun as he palmed a soccer ball. It was childhood and bliss in front of the Red Hook IKEA, glimpses of a Deion I had taught and tucked away. That year, the school remembered and forgot, remembered and forgot, in waves.

A few months ago, an email from a colleague arrived in my school inbox. It had a sad-face emoticon and included an article from Al Jazeera. The article, titled “Blood on the Tracks: The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Deion Fludd,” started with this description:

One evening almost two years ago, a young couple walked hand in hand to a subway station in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. The girl, Hesha Sanchez, 17, wasn’t carrying her fare card, but she wanted to keep her boyfriend, Deion Fludd, company while he waited for the train. So they squeezed through the turnstile on a single swipe of his card.

Roughly 40 minutes later, Fludd, bloodied and semiconscious, was carried from the station. According to the New York Police Department, officers tried to arrest Fludd for fare evasion after encountering him on the subway platform. He then fled onto the tracks and was hit by a train. But when Fludd awoke the next day, his ankle shackled to his hospital bed, he told a different story: According to his family, the teenager said he’d been injured by police, who’d beaten him after he climbed back onto the subway platform. Nine weeks later, Fludd died from complications from his injuries.

According to this report, Deion had gone from jump shots on the court to shackles on a bed. If he had been paralyzed from the neck down, I couldn’t imagine what the shackles would have been for. Six cops reportedly chased Deion down that night because he had snuck through the turnstile so his girlfriend could use his Metrocard. Al Jazeera obtained reports suggesting that quota requirements may have incentivized police officers to seek out arrests that night, including by leaving their designated areas of patrol. Deion had apparently already been arrested a number of times for minor infractions, including for fighting at school.

Deion’s mother contends that the cops had hit the back of his head and pinned him down on his back with their feet, warning him against running away—telling him that they wouldn’t let him run ever again. Run again, he never did. Whether because of a train accident or police misconduct (or something in between), Deion eventually died in and out of consciousness. He will be the keeper of this truth.

And I was left with half-truths. I couldn’t solve the “mysterious death of Deion Fludd.” Instead, I felt dazed and duped.  I tried connecting the information included in the few articles that floated online. I wanted to remain angry but didn’t have enough information to do so. All of it strained my eyes and heart. Deion was gone and I had not given him enough time. He was not going to return next year and linger by the door to say “hello” or make funny faces. I would have no reports on his basketball stats. All the red markers would remain intact. I regretted not pulling him in from the hallways and asking him more—especially after the fight in the lunchroom. I had failed to advise him about the principles of the real world. I forgot to tell him that the world wouldn’t be as forgiving as I had been with the red markers.

Deion's mother places his remains on a table in the family’s apartment. (Andrew Hinderaker)

I’ve never met Karen Fludd, his mother, in person, and I can only speculate about her state based on what I had read and later, what we had exchanged through texts. When Claudia Rankine, a Jamaican poet, asked a mother of a black son what motherhood is like, she said, “The condition of black life is one of mourning … For her, mourning lived in real time inside her and her son’s reality: At any moment she might lose her reason for living.” Has Karen Fludd lost her reason for living? She wants to live to see the day that she can meet the officers from that night face to face. She has hired lawyers and is suing the city, but I can’t imagine any of it serving real justice. Justice would be reviving him, and her.

A teacher never goes into a classroom thinking much about her students’ mortality. A teacher wants to teach that mortality bears no color and that it does not come prematurely.

Deion’s Facebook wall—if it ever was his to begin with—is not populated by many posts. It’s so sparse that, below the few uploads and posts, is this:

I’m tempted to friend the ghost—tag its wall red, to show that I remember. But I’m afraid it wouldn’t solve anything.