Shanda Smith wants her two teenage sons to be healthy and strong, to respect their elders and to come straight home from school. But she also wants something that most parents do not have to worry about with the same intensity: She wants them to stay alive.
In 1993, Smith's oldest son and daughter, then teenagers, were shot to death in a case of mistaken identity as they drove to a church Christmas party in Southeast Washington. Now Smith's surviving children, Charles, 15, and Marquis, 13, are at a vulnerable age, and she broods over them with a mixture of gloom and hope.
"I have to protect the ones I have left," says Shanda Smith, with sons Charles, left, and Marquis, who were 4 and 2 when their siblings were killed.
(Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
"When my big kids were killed," she said, "I looked at my little kids and I thought, 'One day, they'll be teenagers, too,' and that is today. I have them again, and I have to protect the ones I have left."
Many parents living in violence-marked neighborhoods of the District understand Smith's anxiety. Their children are growing up going to funerals of young relatives and friends. Sudden death is almost routine. On Smith's living room wall is a photograph of Charles and Marquis, then ages 4 and 2, standing beside their siblings' graves.
These parents feel more keenly than most the immediate dangers of the outside world. In a city that recorded an alarming increase in homicides of people younger than 21 years old last year, they are on the edge of an ongoing drama.
Every time Charlissa Tomlinson watches her son Kevin, 17, leave their Northeast home, a small part of her wonders whether she will ever see him again. Ever since his oldest brother, Dameon, then 19, was shot to death three years ago, he has grown angrier, more distant. When he was charged recently with trespassing, after trying to visit friends at another school, Tomlinson was almost relieved. The infraction brought him an 8 p.m. curfew, which meant she could rest easier, knowing he was home.
"My son Dameon would always say to me: 'I love you, Ma. Stop worrying, Ma. You worry too much, Ma,' " Tomlinson said recently. "That's what he was always telling me, and then I lost him, and I can't go through that again. Kevin could be down at my sister's house and I would still worry about him."
There is only so much parents can do. Lawanda Tatum-Pelote moved to Prince George's County to remove her son, Rex, 18, from the bad influences in their old Langston Terrace NE neighborhood. But it is hard, they admit, for him to stay away from his relatives and friends who remain there.
Cookie Lee was "worried to death" when she found out her 18-year-old daughter DeMetria Coachman, a high school senior, was sneaking out and going to go-go clubs, where violence sometimes erupts.
"I had to put my foot down, because it's a different breed, it's a different crowd out there now," she said. "There are a lot of things DeMetria wants me to help her do, like get her driver's license. And I said, 'No, ma'am,' she has to do better first. Once I put my foot down, it's down."
Shanda Smith wonders sometimes whether her fears make her overprotective. On a recent snowy afternoon, she scanned the streets outside her modest apartment in Northeast for signs of her sons, her apprehension growing. "It dawned on me: 'Wait a minute -- where are they? They've been out way too long. What's happened to them?' " she said.
When the brothers showed up, cold and grinning, they said they had been shoveling snow all day. Happily, they gave their mother the money they had made, nearly $100. It was for the phone bill, they said.
"They knew how worried I was about it," said Smith, 45, a clerical worker who takes jobs on a contract basis and sometimes struggles to pay the bills. "They're good boys."
But she knows that does not matter, not really, when it comes to their safety. Her oldest son, Rodney, was a good boy, too. A football standout at Anacostia High School, he had won a football scholarship to the University of Kansas. They were all so proud of him. But when the 19-year-old was home for Christmas break in 1993, he and his sister, Volante, 14, known as "Boo," were fatally shot as they rode down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. Police said they were slain by a member of a drug gang who mistook Rodney for an enemy and opened fire.