Everyone has a Michael Brown story, and Ngone Seck was telling hers as she sat with several friends at Riverview Gardens High School, where she’s a freshman.
On Aug. 9, the last Saturday before school was to start, she and her father left their home in the Canfield Green apartments to pick up a friend. And it was in that moment that everything changed.
Angry residents were pouring onto the street. An unarmed black 18-year-old had just been killed by a white police officer, and as the crowd was continuing to grow, more police were showing up.
Brown’s “stepdad stopped our car,” Ngone, 15, recalled. “And he had a cardboard sign that said that someone had executed his son.”
Riverview Gardens sits just outside this small St. Louis suburb, but many Ferguson teenagers are enrolled here, including a number who live in the Canfield Green complex.
They have spent three long months living in the aftermath of the shooting — the civil unrest, the militarized police response that shocked the country, the delayed school opening and disrupted activities. The protests haven’t stopped, the anxious conversation remains constant, and uncertainty covers the metro area like a second skin.
That massive unrest may erupt again soon has made students more anxious, frustrated and emotionally exhausted.
A grand jury is expected to announce soon whether it found the shooting of Brown unjustified or whether it decided that the officer, Darren Wilson, was threatened and doing what he was trained to do when in fear for his life.
Few of the students seem to believe that Wilson will face criminal charges, and they are preparing for another social explosion. Kaylen Lucas, 16, summed it up.
“We come to school every day and at least someone says: ‘I didn’t think we were going to have school today,’ ” the sophomore said. “It’s really stressful. Everybody is talking about getting all of our work done before the schools get shut down if there are riots.”
The others nodded in agreement. Besides Ngone and Kaylen, they were Alexis Adams, Cassandra Bell and Keyon Moore, the only guy. They are mates in the school band and friends. They were brought together this year by their passion for music, and they’ve stayed together through a semester they will always remember — if for too many of the wrong reasons.
These are tense times for students all over the St. Louis area. Schools have been promised a heads-up about the timing of a grand jury announcement. Some districts have distributed homework packets in case of closings. Now it’s just the waiting.
The anxiety even reaches across the Mississippi. At a forum last week in East St. Louis, Ill., a minister asked how many of the young people present fear that they could die as Brown did. Dozens of hands flew up.
But nowhere is the intensity more real than it is at Riverside Gardens High, where Brown was once a student.
Almost all of the 1,300 students who attend Riverview Gardens — whose sprawling, nine-building campus is similar to that of a small college — are black, and they come from a half-dozen communities in St. Louis County.
The protests have raged in their neighborhoods, where the boarded-up buildings line the streets. And sleep can still be elusive amid the shouting of protesters, the noise of helicopters and the worries about what may come.
Ngone and her friends are desperately hoping that everyone is wrong about what’s coming. They want it all to be over. Because it is truly awful that someone so close to their age was killed, especially when it was a police-involved shooting. And this horrible thing has taken over all aspects of their lives.
And there’s this: They’ve all been working their butts off preparing for a band concert. And if things blow up again, it will be one more cancellation, one more disappointment.
Ngone’s freshman year wasn’t supposed to go this way.
She loves school and was so excited about starting. Then it was delayed. Her aunt’s beauty supply shop, just up the street on West Florissant, was looted. And her parents, immigrants who speak little English, keep threatening to take her out of school. The family will move away, they say, at least until everything has blown over.
“I barely made it to school. My parents were really scared,” Ngone said, “especially because it was right in front of our house and the rioting was happening right there.”
For her friend Alexis, it was especially frustrating that band performances and practices were being canceled, along with sports clubs and other activities. The studious 17-year-old senior is trying to plan for college next year, and she found it disruptive that band, tennis and National Honor Society activities were all being scrapped.
“I try to keep my mind off of it,” said Alexis, who lives in a neighborhood nearby, in an unincorporated part of St. Louis County.
Many of their teachers, the students said, have worked to defuse conversations about the shooting. Their unachievable goal has been to keep young, distractible minds focused on school.
Natasha Dupee, a third-year science and women’s studies teacher, said she has struggled to find ways to facilitate productive classroom conversations about the shooting.
“I’ve had comments that ranged from, ‘I’m not going to be the next Mike Brown,’ to outrage at the looting and violence,” Dupee said. “Even for the students not directly affected or who are more removed from the shooting, they all feel like this is something deeply affecting their community.”
And she worries about the students’ safety.
Dupee said she was driving near Canfield Green on that Saturday in August, when she heard about a fatal shooting. She panicked.
“My heart immediately went to, ‘Where are my students?’ ” said Dupee, 24.
She started texting students to try to find out who had been killed. By Sunday evening, she had reached all but one girl. A week or so after classes began, she heard from that student. “Mike Brown was my cousin,” the girl told Dupee.
Principal Darius Kirk remembered a chorus of police sirens on the day of the shooting and then a barrage of texts from students saying that a former student had been shot and killed by police and that he should come as quickly as possible.
Then, he started receiving texts saying he should stay away because the police had arrived en masse and were pointing guns at everyone.
One of his focuses, he said, has been on getting staff members and students to understand the difference between reacting and responding. Reacting, he said, is a knee-jerk approach without thinking. Responding is thinking first, then acting.
Bernice King, the daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., visited the school to talk about his work, and Kirk said he had lawyers come to the school to help students understand their constitutional rights. One of the school’s art projects is a mural meant to capture what has happened since August. It includes Brown, familiar scenes from the city, and symbols of peace and social change.
After a couple of months, students and staff members said, things seemed to begin to settle down. School activities resumed. The homecoming dance was a success.
For the dance, Cassandra, 15, wore a knee-length mint and black dress.
A quiet girl, she had been frustrated by the anger and protests that engulfed her community. She said something needed to be done about the relationship between the community and police, but after all the talk, it didn’t seem like anything was getting better.
She remembered when she and some cousins were followed by a police officer who was working security at a clothing store. “It made me really upset,” she said. “Was it because we are black?”
Still, homecoming was like it was supposed to be, the way the rest of the year was supposed to be. The friends went as a group instead of finding dates. They became upset that the DJ wouldn’t play “Hot Boy,” a summer hit. They teased Ngone, who shied away from the dance floor, and scooped up second (and third) pieces of cake from the refreshment table.
But lately, the atmosphere has slipped back to the way it was at the start of the school year. The chatter in the yellow and blue hallways between classes is dominated by speculation and worry.
Ngone and her friends have thrown themselves into band practice. They’ve been furiously preparing, showing up on weekends for extra rehearsals and selling $10 tickets to relatives, friends, whoever will bite. It’s their first headline show at Sheldon Concert Hall, a major venue.
The program is scheduled for Sunday. They know that any day now the point of all their efforts could be blown away. But that’s beyond their control, so they rehearse and hope.
Keyon, who plays the trombone, refused to entertain the looming possibility. He sank deeper into his chair, prattling on about how nervous he was about the performance, about how much he wanted things to go off well.
If they could, they would turn back the clock to Aug. 8, for the chance that things could take a different, better turn.
“We’ve been practicing every day,” he said about the concert. “There are going to be so many people.”
Jahi Chikwendiu contributed to this report.