Keeley Parenteau

Student Essay: Chicago’s “Crooked Smile”

Last month, Rachel Kim, our outgoing education editor, had the idea for the South Side Weekly to hold a student essay contest this summer. The theme for the contest was topical: as Lori Lightfoot was to be sworn in as mayor, we wanted to hear from middle and high school students from around the South Side what they wanted Mayor Lightfoot “to know and understand about [their] neighborhood,” and the “stories and memories about the people and places in [their] community” that “best exemplify the future of Chicago [they] want to see.”

We received over twenty-five submissions from all over the South Side. It was difficult to narrow them down. There were so many beautiful, thoughtful essays, each offering a different view of their South Side community and what they thought was the most important thing to tell Chicago’s new mayor. In the end, we chose three essays to print. Read the other two: “Where We’re From” and “Windy City: The City with Less Air to Breathe.”

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“Hey officer man, we don’t want nobody getting killed

Just open up that cell, let my brother out of jail

I got money for the bail now, well now” – J. Cole

Dear Mayor Lightfoot,

When I was a young girl, there was a shooting on my street while a block party was happening. I ran into my house, looking for a way out. I saw my dad stay in front to make sure everyone was okay. The police, helicopters, and ambulance lights seemed louder than the bullets shot that night.

But what I also remember as a girl is going to church and eating Takis in the front of my house while watching my dogs. I never knew that the shootings on my block would “define” my community. And if I’m being honest, that doesn’t define my community at all. I go outside and play with my friends outside. I have a class where we talk about advanced political issues, so believe me when I say we are not the “dangerous” ones in Chicago. In my community, I have people who show love and care. What defines my community is friends, family, and pride.

One day, my family was looking at houses in Oak Lawn. We were viewing a house and the owner told us, “One block away there is the mayor, and the police chief is the neighbor, and this house is next to former military members.” It was a beautiful neighborhood and had a lot of spirit, just like mine. After we left the house, my mom said, “If we move over here, you can’t bring your ghetto.” That comment made me extremely angry. The definition of ghetto is “a part of a city, especially a slum area, occupied by a minority group or groups.” My people in my neighborhood should not be treated like worthless pennies in a piggy bank called the South Side. We are the stars that shine when you can’t see the pathway. We deserve so much from the system. It’s come to a point where those in power make us forget our own worth. We are not ghetto—we are the uprising. We are the change in history.

What you have to understand about me is that I will never beat the same drum as everyone else. As a South Side girl, I’ve seen things happen in my community that no average North Side person can compare to. That’s the problem in Chicago: the difference between what we get and what we deserve.

I went to my cousin’s classroom on the North Side once. That was like walking into a new part of Chicago that I never knew existed before. Comparatively, on the South Side, it looks like we learn and live in a janitor’s closet. As our mayor, I think it’s time for you to change that. Make schools equal. We ask for good quality books, bigger classrooms, better supplies, and so much more. My class is small, and my own teacher pays for her own supplies. Why? Because we don’t get the same amount of resources that privileged people get. The problem isn’t only our schools, it is also how the system works in Chicago. I’m tuckered out seeing these differences in our city.

My class realizes how we are treated differently and we notice how Chicago is segregated. It’s a color line in Chicago. We are taught to stay reticent, and it’s quite draining at times. As a twelve-year-old girl still learning about and experiencing the world, I find it helpful to write about this, to show my value and power through my writing. I see myself making peace by persuading.

Rahm Emanuel, our former mayor, has degraded South and West Side people for something that isn’t our fault. The safety hazards are not our fault. Instead, it’s like Chicago’s political system is getting an F on a test they should have studied for. My question is, will you get an A on the test that has been failed for decades?

If we live in a city where shootings and kidnappings of women are more “normal” than teenagers graduating, what does that tell you about the change we need in Chicago? By the end of the time you are mayor, will my little cousins be able to play outside without getting shot?That’s up to you. If you want to succeed, listen to our voices and realize our worth because that’s something that our last mayor couldn’t do. Instead of the system playing us, let the kids play. Let the future population of Chicago continue to grow and be proud of what they’ve created themselves.

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Keanna Figueroa lives in Gage Park and is a sixth grader at Sawyer Elementary School. She has a wonderful teacher named Ms. Gluckman here and a soon-to-be teacher named Ms. Taylor. This is her second contribution to the Weekly.

2 Comments

  1. OMG! I had tears in my eyes as I read this truth. I am a teacher and was raised in the north side of Chicago. I also taught in the northside for about 12 years and I have taught in the far south east side and south side of Chicago now for about 7 years now, and yes the disperaties are so noticeable. I was culture shock but also happy that I was able to meet Hispanic families who value their neighborhood. My first few years in a South side school gave me a whole new perspective and made me more empathetic to my little students who would come to school in the morning to tell me they heard gun shots when they were trying to go to sleep. Yes, you are right that shootings do not define who you are. Keanna I love the quote by Nelson Mandela ” Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” You my dear are doing that right now, and I cannot wait to hear the many great things you will achieve. Best, Claudia Ortiz

  2. Beautiful words from a beautiful person, in and out. I happen to know this family and proud to call them family. Powerful words coming from a young girl who wants good in her community, her neighbors and in the city of Chicago, no matter the race, color or religion. God bless her. Respect, Jaime Chavez

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