Eight months ago, 18-year-old Leonard Worley lay sprawled face down on a cold sidewalk in Southeast, bleeding heavily from six bullet wounds, the work of three late-night robbers.
The pain was like nothing he had ever experienced. "Am I going to die?" he asked the paramedics working feverishly during his ambulance ride to D.C. General Hospital. They never answered.
At the hospital, doctors discovered one bullet lodged inches from his spine, a second near his kidney, a third on his left hip, and three in his right leg.
But luck was on Worley's side. He survived the nightmarish incident and returned to classes at Duke Ellington School of the Arts. He walks with a slight limp, and three of the bullets remain inside his body. Still, tommorrow he will graduate with his class.
Worley is one of hundreds of high school seniors in the city who will graduate in the next few weeks, many of whom have been touched by the District's high crime rate.
In honor of Worley's achievement, teachers will give him a special award during commencement exercises. And the school intends to make it an annual tradition to recognize the senior who has overcome the most obstacles to graduate.
"This kid had to heal himself physically and emotionally," said Ellington Principal Martis Davis. "When you're looking for heroes, somebody has got to say, 'That's a hero.' "
The shooting occurred about 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 23. It was a Sunday, and Worley was on his way to visit his girlfriend. A taxicab had let him out at 10th and C streets SE. The directions had been mixed up -- his girlfriend actually was staying in Northeast.
After 10 minutes of fruitless searching, Worley gave up and was heading home when three teenage youths with knit hats pulled low over their eyes rounded a corner. One said "Let's get him." Worley turned and ran. That's when he heard the shots.
"It felt like somebody just hit me with a hammer," he said. "They came close and I told them, 'Homeboy, don't shoot anymore. Take whatever you want . . . . ' They took everything from me, my coat, my money, my ring."
Everything happened so fast Worley was unable to identify his assailants, he said. Police said no arrests have been made in connection with the case.
Worley spent three months in the hospital and had eight operations. Through it all he struggled to make sense of the incident.
"I think the guys that shot me were just on a binge. They wanted to prove how much of a man they are," Worley said. "The thing that got me the most was why would they shoot me? Somebody of their own color . . . . It just makes me realize the hard, brutal truth of how society is and how it affects blacks."
At first, he said, police thought the shooting may have been drug-related and questioned Worley and his friends about illegal drugs. Worley said he has neither experimented with nor sold drugs
Six years ago his father, Leonard A. Worley, was killed in a drug-related shooting in Northwest, he said. "It made me stronger, though I cried when I first heard about it. By my father having his life taken like that, I felt there was no way I would let myself go out like that."
Readjusting to school was difficult. At first he was too weak to complete an entire day, which at Ellington means from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. But by year's end, his strength and mental spirits had improved so much that he caught up and even made the honor roll.
"He was like a war veteran coming back and wanting attention," said Carolyn Jones Howard, who teaches writing. "He had a lot of anger about everything. I told him, 'you've got to take the experience and use it, otherwise it's going to eat you up.' "
After graduation, Worley, who lives with his mother and stepfather in Southeast, plans to move into an apartment with a friend and enroll at the University of the District of Columbia. A literature and media major at Ellington, he wants to study criminology to learn what motivates criminals. Meanwhile, he plays with a fledgling local rap group called "Moral Conduct" and is hoping for a career as a music producer. "A lot of people told me that if it was them, they would have given up. It hasn't been easy . . . . I was real lucky."