The pain of losing 13-year-old Michael Swann gripped Jasmin Smith so deeply that she sat in her seventh-grade class at Johnson Junior High School last week and wrote a poem:
We enjoyed his stay, now we are watching him while he lay.
We never thought it would happen this way.
It made us cry and had us wonder why he had to die.
Jasmin, 13, stood with a cluster of friends at Washington View apartments in Southeast Washington one night last week and recalled the funny boy whom everyone called Jughead.
"That was my friend, and it hurts," Jasmin said, holding the poem in her hand.
Michael was remembered in a church service Friday through a wail of tears and familiar calls for a cease-fire. This year, there have been 21 homicide victims under the age of 18 in the District, and the surge of violence has confounded city and community officials.
For the childhood friends left behind, many of whom attended the funeral, Michael's death has forced them to reflect on how fragile their lives can be. They have demanded explanations from counselors, and they have turned to the grim but familiar ritual of wearing a T-shirt bearing the face of a friend who is no longer alive.
Children in the District have been exposed to street violence since the late 1980s, and dealing with death has become its own ritual. In Karin Walser's tutoring program, children doodle "RIP" and write the names of their dead friends.
Mothers send their children off to school every day, Walser said, and exhort them to pray.
"They say, 'Say your prayers before you leave so that if God takes you, you'll be ready,' " said Walser, executive director of Horton's Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides services for children in Southeast.
Walser said she has attended funerals and heard young girls describe the kind of funeral they would want for an older brother. The expectation, even among family members, is that young black men will lead short lives, Walser said.
Such fatalism among children worries teachers, parents and mental health professionals. The child with the largest swagger and toughest demeanor most likely also feels the most vulnerable, said Steven Marans, a psychoanalyst and director of the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence, at Yale University.
"Kids find ways of adapting to awful situations," Marans said. "But the kids who may be having the most difficulty acting like kids may no longer be able to."
Another concern is that many other children are not speaking up at all. At a police community meeting room last week, a dozen friends clutched photos of Michael. La-Vette Robinson, 15, a ninth-grader at McKinley Technology High School, was the only one to vent her frustrations. She said it was too painful for her friends share their feelings.
"I see more teenagers getting locked up and killing each other," La-Vette said. Then, she spoke for every other young person in the room. "It's hard to lose a friend that's only 13. We grew up here, and we live here. We know him," she said.
Adults who want to reach out to children exposed to violence must be persistent, said Julia Duncan, executive director of Survivors of Homicide, a nonprofit organization that talks to groups about grief. In school, Duncan said, teachers do not give up on students who don't understand a math problem the first time. "We have to do the same thing for our children's emotional problems," she said.
Last week, Duncan spoke to a hushed group of about a dozen teenagers at the Washington View teen center. The basement space, with table tennis and pool tables and a bank of computers, was where Michael sometimes hung out after school.
Duncan asked how many people knew someone who had been killed; several hands slowly went up.
"This is a time for you to think about getting your life on track," Duncan said in a soft but firm voice as she walked through the room. Two boys abruptly got up and left. But at the end, one young man patted her on the back and said thank you, Duncan said.
"Those kinds of things reassure you that you shouldn't give up. Even if they don't say anything, we have to keep at it."
Standing with her friends last week at Washington Terrace, Zellnetta Martin said it was sad that it took the death of Michael to make her reflect on her own life.
"Now I have to cherish every minute I have on the earth. I could go inside the house, go to sleep and die," she said.
Jasmine Thompson, 13, said Michael's death was a jolt to listen to the adults in her life. She sometimes stayed out until 11 p.m. on weekdays, hours past her mother's 9 p.m. curfew. But she said she plans to follow her mother's rules more closely.
"There ain't nothing on these streets," Jasmine said.
Jasmine's mother, Monica Thompson, 41, said she talks to her daughter frequently about what can happen to her. Now, in Michael's death, she has an example.
"All you can do is try to keep them close to you, in the house, and stress the dangers -- and hope that they are listening," she said.