It was April 2018, a Sunday afternoon, and I was driving back from a volleyball tournament in East Tennessee with my three daughters in the car. They were all asleep when I took a call from my Dean while coming through a mountain pass. While it was unusual for her to call on a weekend, it wasn’t completely abnormal, especially at the end of a semester where there are so many moving parts. So, I answered the phone while driving, not thinking that anything would be wrong. She asked me first if I had some time to talk, and I told her I was driving and had plenty of time. She asked if my husband were in the car. Upon hearing he was not, she asked if I could pull over and talk with her for a few minutes. There wasn’t a place I could pull over then, but I told her I would be fine, again, not imagining what she was about to tell me.
She told me one of my students, DeEbony Groves, had been killed in the early morning at Waffle House. She had just learned this from university officials, and wanted to let me know before I heard it on the news. I just kept saying “no!” over and over again, so emphatically and increasingly louder, and my children woke up confused and frightened. I did find a place to safely pull over, and I called the faculty in our department as well as our program assistant. (I was the Chair at the time, and wanted to let our faculty and staff know before they heard it from others.) I also talked with the director of our university counseling program, to put some preliminary plans in place for meeting the needs of our students.
The days and weeks that followed to the end of the semester passed in a blur. Reaching out to DeEbony’s family to offer comfort and what support that we could, plus meeting the needs of all our students, took priority. (Mourn with those who mourn).
Gradually I heard and read more details of the shooting, and of the shooter. I learned of his background of mental illness and his previous threats to others. I learned of the laws that both removed his guns and yet didn’t keep his father from giving his guns back to him. I visited the local offices of our senators and pleaded with their assistants about the need for gun reform/control. I told them about DeEbony and how hard of a worker she was, how she perpetually ran late but made up for it with her colorful entrances to class. I told them how she had taken an interest in policy that was surprising to her. I told them if that were my children, I couldn’t imagine what I would do, but I would be angry, angry, angry. (Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.)
Fast forward to early 2022. There has been very little progress at the federal level in gun violence prevention, and where I live (Tennessee) is definitely not a leader in state reform and prevention efforts. I keep teaching my policy classes, and asking students to think about how the broader social environment (including witnessing and experiencing violence) affects us all. I keep voting. I keep writing letters. (I keep wondering if it makes any difference.)
I keep remembering DeEbony. Just yesterday, her killer was found guilty on all counts, not only for DeEbony’s death but for the death of the other victims (Joe, Taurean, Akilah) as well as the injuries sustained by others. The finding of guilty is something. I can imagine it brings a measure of peace (maybe?) to their families. But it doesn’t bring their loved ones back. It doesn’t change the trajectory of time for the families, it doesn’t change the outcome for them in the loss of their loved ones. (What is the origin of the phrase “justice has been served? anyway”)
Has justice been served? What does it look like, moving forward? Does it hold the shooter’s father accountable? Most of all, what I hope justice looks like as we move forward is strengthening local, state, and federal policies around preventing gun violence. (There are so many facets to this issue; so many ways to do the work.)
Here are some resources to help with your own thinking, your advocacy, and your teaching if you teach these topics: https://everytownresearch.org/rankings/ and https://momsdemandaction.org/resources/ and https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/23/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-announces-comprehensive-strategy-to-prevent-and-respond-to-gun-crime-and-ensure-public-safety/
On a different note, I also share this as a way of honoring DeEbony: a link to Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”. There are some verses in here that make me think of her: she was rising, she was strong, she was dancing, she was sassing. (And I believe that somewhere, she still is.)
Still I Rise: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise
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