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No more time hooks, please

No more time hooks, please

Picture of Beatrice Motamedi

The call came at 4:30 p.m., just as I was working with my students at the San Francisco school where I teach to put out the next issue of our school newspaper.

"A Castlemont student got hit," said Laura Oda, photo editor for the Oakland Tribune. Oda and photographer Jane Tyska and I had been working for two weeks to gather photos for my fellowship project, a three-part series on teens and stress. 

There was a new urgency in Oda's voice, along with the familiar tone of apology and sorrow that journalists use when a sad thing happens but we really need to go out and cover it.

Whatever I was doing, Oda hinted, I would have to drop. The plain fact was that the death of Ditiyan Franklin, 17, on Wednesday, May 25 while riding his bicycle in East Oakland, dovetailed closely with the Tribune's plans to publish my fellowship project, a three-part series on the stressors that Castlemont high school students face, including violence. 

In our journalistic trade, what happened to Ditiyan is known as a time hook, a way of anchoring a longer story with breaking news. My editor, Martin Reynolds, quickly realized that a package was in the making. This murder, an editorial, my series, a blog by Scott Johnson, the California Endowment-funded reporter who has been working all year on stories about trauma and violence in Oakland - it would be not one story but several, exploring not only the "what" but "why" and "how." To his family and friends, Ditiyan's murder was a moment of indescribable sorrow. To me and to my editors, it was the best possible justification for a series aimed at explaining the conditions in which such moments occur.

Oda started firing more details while I scratched notes onto a pad. Boy. Ditiyan Franklin. 17 years old. A senior. At Leadership Preparatory High School, one of three small schools on the Castlemont campus. A bicycle, which he was riding. At the park, where Castlemont kids who are brave enough to stay outside after school will go, because there is a police sub-station there and everybody loves to shoot hoops. Good kid, B student. I had to ask, because we always ask, was there a gang involved? But Oda didn't know.

The next day, I went to Castlemont. It was a bright, sunny day, the kind that makes a high school student ache for summer. But from the moment I entered the long, dark hallway at Leadership - the mint-green tiles of the walls illuminated by a single fixture - I knew I was in a place of sorrow.

A girl wearing a white do-rag sobbed openly, collapsing into the arms of a teacher who hurried her into an empty classroom. Boys leaned up against the walls, baseball caps and black hoodies pulled over their heads, like medieval monks in mourning. Mental health therapists from the nearby Castlemont health clinic and the Oakland Unified School District arrived and quickly set up a memorial in English teacher Marsha Rhynes' room, including a white orchid, four votive candles, a big purple piece of paper and a straw basket of markers, so that students could write down their feelings. There was a pretty framed drawing of a boy at play. It was too soon to find a photo of Ditiyan. Anyway, he was all over Facebook.

From police reports and from Leadership's principal, Betsye Steele, I learned that Ditiyan had been shot and killed in broad daylight at Arroyo Viejo park, just a few blocks from Castlemont. On a normal day, he would have been in school. On that particular day, a field trip for underclassmen prompted seniors to stay at home to put final touches on their senior research projects.

The projects, required for graduation, are a rite of passage for Oakland teens in public school. Ditiyan had worked hard on his, on gang violence. He had asked for extra time, working with his video arts teacher in the technology lab to put together his PowerPoint presentation. In the hallway, I found Dion Ingram, 18, who had done his senior project the week before and was planning on watching Ditiyan give his project today, the day after he was killed. "Just last week he watched mines, and now he gone," said Ingram, tears running down his cheeks. "It's crazy."

I spent a couple of hours at Castlemont, observing this small community, a school of 200 students, struggling to make sense of grief.

Instead of going to first period, a dozen seniors were herded into a classroom for a meeting with therapists. Despite the gentle suggestions from a counselor for Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, a nonprofit with a California Endowment grant to develop a program at Castlemont, the students were impassive. No one spoke. One girl sat with her head in her hands, sobbing quietly. Every few minutes, a student would get up and leave the room. Girls sat with their purses on their desks in front of them, strangely prim. "When I hear about something like this, I always think of people I've known who were hurt," the therapist prompted helpfully. The students looked at her with faces of stone. The absence of emotion - or rather, emotion buried so deeply that it can no longer be touched or hurt - struck me harder than any words could.

Much as I hated to disturb students, as a reporter on deadline, I needed quotes. So after the meeting broke up I approached three girls. One flicked her gold filigree earrings at me and looked away. No one would speak. I didn't insist. A few moments later, I looked back at the girls and saw them talking to May Wong, an Oakland Unified School District psychologist. Wong was part of the district's crisis response team, which rotates monthly. This was May, so Wong was here. She knelt down next to the girls and miraculously, with her, they began to talk.

I don't know what the girls said and I didn't ask. I know that's not good journalism, but one of the worst things about the homicides that have hit Oakland this year - 13 kids killed, Oakland third in the country for youth firearm homicides, 47 homicides so far this year as of May 29, the day before my story came out, up from 35 at this time last year - is that you don't get a chance anymore to grieve by yourself.

The killing is so bad, so common and so senseless, that we all talk about it constantly, as if it's like the weather, a force of nature that can be understood or explained if you just talk about it long enough. A man killed while gardening in his East Oakland yard? I can't believe it. An 18-year-old killed after buckling his niece in her car seat before a trip to Burger King? Incredible. A boy on his bike, three weeks before his high school graduation? So sad.

A Chinese proverb says that the secret to happiness is this: Grandfather die, father die, son die. But here in Oakland, the young people are dying way before their time, and the illogic of this, the huge mistake it represents, is something no one can understand. Words can't explain it. Students who are silent may just have the most dignified response.

A half-hour after I left Castlemont, I was on BART, speeding through the transbay tube to my day job as a teacher. I wrote Ditiyan's story on the train. Like all good stories - and I mean that in the journalistic way, those with human interest, fact and detail, and a strong sense of outrage - it wrote itself. I finished it on a MUNI bus and I filed it as soon as I got to the office. Katy Murphy, the excellent education reporter for the Tribune, also filed a story and the published piece carried both our bylines. 

"Very powerful," e-mailed Martin Reynolds, the editor of the Tribune, who was overseeing the coverage. With Ditiyan's death, my fellowship project had "all of a sudden become incredibly timely." And he was right. But in his heart, I know, he didn't want this to happen. Neither did I.

No more time hooks, please.


Picture of Martha Shirk

What a powerful personal coda to a compelling series!  You really captured the angst with which reporters grapple when we're called upon to report a story about people we know.  The situation in Oakland is a national tragedy -- and scandal. Thirteen kids killed in six months!  Where is the outrage?

Picture of Beatrice Motamedi

And Martha should know ... if you haven't already read "On Their Own: What Happens to Kids When They Age Out Of The Foster Care System" (at, you should. I picked it up on a Saturday and didn't stop reading till Sunday night. Martha was my fellowship "doula" and she well knows how tough it is to report on kids; you want to get in there and solve problems, not give voice only. It's great to be able to be a teacher in part of my life, so that I can do that kind of nurturing and mentoring, but I also value the objectivity that journalism demands. In the end, you probably need to do both of those things — give a kid a hand, and analyze why he's hurting — if you want to make his life better. Thanks, Martha!

Picture of Michelle Levander

Beatrice: Thanks for this compelling story about how journalists do what they do when covering tragedy, surrounded by grieving. It is especially compelling knowing that you worked with these young people at Castlemont for many months and that you had seen more than one of them die. I hope your series brings attention to hot spots like this one and that we can see an end to this senselessness.

best, M


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