Kids talk about tragedy in the simplest terms.
Cameron Guzman, 9, was shooting hoops outside Clarke Street Elementary School on May 21, the night his friend Sierra Guyton was struck by a stray bullet on the playground nearby.
“I just started running,” Cameron said Sunday at a neighborhood rally at the playground. “Before that, I never saw nobody get killed in front of my face.”
Leonna Singleton, 8, is Sierra’s cousin.
“When I heard about it, I cried,” Leonna said. “Then the next day came, and the next day, and I kept on crying.”
Sierra, 10, died July 13 after spending two months on life support. An 18-year-old man was charged last week with homicide in her death.
On Sunday afternoon, Cameron and Leonna joined more than 100 neighborhood kids, parents, faith leaders, police officers, teachers and officials at Tabernacle Community Baptist Church, where Sierra’s funeral was held July 17.
They marched down W. Medford Ave., across N. 27th St. and down W. Clarke St. to Clarke and N. 28th. The three-block journey was an attempt to reclaim ground that has become a symbol of violence and turn it back into what it was meant to be: a playground.
“Let the children play, each and every day,” the crowd chanted.
For many of the kids, it was the first time they’d played at Clarke Street School for months.
Miz-Monee Chambers, 10, used to be afraid of sliding down the playground’s tall fire pole. Now she fears the playground itself.
“When Sierra died, they thought it was me,” she said. Like Sierra, she is tall for her age, with round cheeks and hair down to her chin.
Sierra’s death spooked Miz-Monee and her mom, Lakeesha Collins, who withdrew her daughters from Clarke Street Elementary School this summer because of the shooting.
“I got scared,” Collins said. “That could’ve been my baby.”
Collins gazed at the kids playing on the colorful plastic play structure. “It shouldn’t be this way, but they’re used to it,” she said. “If they hear a gunshot, the first thing they do is duck.”
Daryl Burns, the principal of Clarke Street Elementary, said he was saddened to see kids so desensitized to violence. “Our kids are pretty battle-tested,” he said Sunday. In the past year, a 7-year-old Clarke student died from an asthma attack, and a 6-year-old was killed by a car.
But that didn’t make Sierra’s death any easier.
“There’s no professional development, no college classes that can prepare you to deal with something like this,” he said.
Brenda Morrow, a Sunday school teacher at Tabernacle Baptist Church, used Bible stories and hymns to explain the tragedy to her students. One particular hymn seemed to fit: “We’ll understand it better by and by,” it goes. But, Morrow added, “There are some things we will never be able to understand.”
Onjuan Guyton, Sierra’s father, said it is important to try. When Sierra was shot, he was “100% honest” with her siblings, ages 12 and 8.
“I don’t want to cut no corners. I don’t want to give them no fairy tales,” he said. “I don’t want to tell them that this is never going to happen again. Because this is what is happening, and unless we do something about it, it’s gonna keep happening.”
The grown-ups at the Clarke Street School playground Sunday stressed the need for concrete change: Stricter gun laws. More community vigilance. Increased parental involvement.
The kids had simpler things to say.
“I bet she’s up there smiling,” said Onjuan Guyton Jr., Sierra’s 8-year-old brother. He recalled playing tag with his sister and competing to see who could stay on the monkey bars the longest. Sierra would always win, he said.
“She doesn’t ever get tired,” Onjuan said. “That’s what I like about her. She doesn’t get hungry, and she’s the last to go to sleep.
“She always wants to keep playing,” he said.