Jalen’s story is finally out in the world. Project release days for me are always … I get nervous. I feel uneasy. It’s out there, now.
I met Jalen a couple days after he was shot, in early February. He was, and remains, paralyzed. He was covered to his neck by blankets, lying in a hospital bed in Comer Children's Hospital. He has expressive, warm and inviting eyes and I remember leaving the room after the brief meeting, knowing nothing about him except that he seemed sad and afraid. I felt like I hadn't encountered many more relevant testimonies to the state of things in Chicago than a paralyzed 11-year-old now terrified of the world before him.
I had called his mother Judy at the beginning of my first shift back after his shooting, just in the normal course of beat work. She was upset. We talked for a couple hours the next day in a Starbucks at the hospital. We made the pitch to Judy, to the hospitals ... that we would just be around for everything, recognizing we'd have no idea what we'd encounter, and hoped they'd trust us to be sensitive and respectful.
Judy said yes. We met Jalen the next day.
Jalen's story is that he's learning to live without being able to walk. His mother’s story, his father’s story … they’re each learning how to live without their son being able to walk. Without feeling below his chest. The moment Jalen was shot will shape the lives, until death, of those closest to him.
I understand - there's the risk of him living where he lived, or that because his uncle was a low-ranking Latin King that those nearby are more likely to get shot. I know all that. You can blame his mom (she certainly blames herself) or you can blame society. You can blame the guy who did the shooting, or the system that led to him thinking it was OK, or his parents.
But Jalen was 11. We lose sight of the reality of those nearest injury when the violence is framed only by politics or numbers. The goal of work like this, in part, is to foster empathy. So that people who see this, maybe they’re less quick to judge the next victim’s parent, less quick to write of the experiences of people they don’t know. Even for us, less quick to write off a GSW to the arm.
Jalen is a wonderful kid. It's hard to sit with him and not want to talk with him like an adult because he's operating on our level in a lot ways. (In others, many others, he's still a boy.) His sense of humor shades dark, something Jason and I can both appreciate. His whole family recognizes his maturity, and in a way it makes him more capable to deal with his wound than many others his age. Having a supportive family and healthcare and hobbies and ways to make meaning out of life will help him heal. Not every kid has that.
And that's just the state of things - it’s nothing for us, or for a family, to consider the degree to which kids can cope after getting shot, because we know kids will keep getting shot. It shouldn’t be in our framework to think of a time when that won't be true. But it's happened before him and since. Every kid has their own story. This one is Jalen's.
About the photo:
Jalen Ivy, 11, in his 18th-floor hospital room at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. (He grew so comfortable here that, with a few weeks to go before his discharge, he sat his parents down for a talk. He wanted a little space, and wanted to know if they’d leave him to sleep there alone at night.) Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans, friend and reporting partner.