Chanell Holliday has barely slept since her 16-year-old son Seandell was shot to death in Millennium Park on Saturday, ripping her world apart and sending the city of Chicago into a tailspin.
One of the only things she thought might help was to visit her son’s friends at his school mentoring program. Holliday, a short woman with a commanding voice, asked her son’s mentor if she could come to his South Side school.
“I’m like, ‘Is it okay if I come up to the school and you know, hug the kids?’ ” Holliday said she asked Vondale Singleton, the mentor. “Because this is hard. This is so hard for me.”
They welcomed her Tuesday morning to a classroom with shelves full of books on the first floor of Gary Comer College Prep, the Greater Grand Crossing school where Seandell was a freshman. She joined Seandell’s first period class, a daily mentoring group run through C.H.A.M.P.S Mentoring that focuses on young men of color.
Holliday sat with nine of her son’s classmates scattered around the room, sharing memories of a teen they described as quiet, but caring. He was funny and had a passion for music. Everyone chuckled when they talked about how competitive he got playing basketball and how no food was safe when he was around.
“[He] just begged me, the whole class, to give [him] some cheese fries,” his friend Demetrius Walker-Hill, 15, remembered. “He always wanted some food, and not even just that. When he had food, he always shared with us.”
Following Seandell’s death, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot introduced new policies for teens, moving curfew back an hour to 10 p.m. Minors also will not be allowed in Millennium Park Thursday through Sunday past 6 pm without a “responsible adult.” A 17-year-old has been charged with Seandell’s murder. While the city debates these changes the mayor argues will keep kids safe and Millennium Park “available and open to everyone,” his mother and friends are in mourning. Several said they are afraid to leave their homes, let alone go downtown. They doubt the mayor’s new policies will help.
“It’s like my soul left my body”
Seandell’s friends are trying to make sense of what happened. Demetrius told the group he heard about a kid getting shot on Saturday and felt bad for his family. He felt gutted when he found out it was his friend.
“I didn’t believe it. That Saturday and Sunday night, I didn’t eat that whole day, and I slept that whole day,” said Demetrius, who wore sunglasses and earbuds. “It was just like, I lost one of my brothers.”
Another classmate, Jayln Pressey, 15, remembers his last words to Seandell: “Alright shorty, be smooth.”
“I already been through this too much. I want to cry so bad but I couldn’t because like the tears are not there anymore,” Jalyn shared with the group while Holliday listened intently. But “like everybody else said, I can’t let this discourage me …. I gotta do what I gotta do for him because he ain’t able to live his dream and so I’m gonna live it for him.”
Seandell’s mom told the class how Saturday unfolded. She said they got into a minor argument because she did not want him going downtown. Later, she said she was at the nearby Riverwalk when she got word her son had been shot.
“It’s like my soul left my body,” she said. “I had to call every hospital in the area …They said, ‘Unfortunately, Seandell’s heart had stopped.’ ”
The teens met up at Millennium Park on Saturday as part of what is known as a “trends” gathering. Seandell’s classmates said someone usually posts on social media inviting teens to show up at a location at a certain time to have fun. Holliday said she had only learned of it on Saturday. Seandell’s classmates chimed in, saying “trends” had been around for years. Some said they avoid “trends” because they have only heard of them ending badly.
“Most of the trends that most people have been at, it’s always a fight or shooting,” Demetrius said. “People want to go outside and have fun. No one wants to go outside worrying about how they gonna make it home.”
All the boys said Seandell wasn’t a regular at these kinds of gatherings. He mostly kept to himself. And Holliday pleaded with the boys to be careful, saying nothing is just a little fight anymore. Everyone is too quick to pick up a gun now, she said.
“I don’t want to see nobody else’s kid [hurt] …even the boy, [who is accused of shooting Seandell] he’s a kid himself,” she said.
Holliday said the boys may feel like their parents are hard on them, but they are only trying to protect them. The boys gave an understanding nod. Many said they don’t like to leave their homes.
“As soon as I take the garbage out, I be speed walking back to the door because there’s so much stuff that can happen just like that,” Jayln said.
Seandell’s friends don’t support the mayor’s new policies
The class had resounding doubts about whether the mayor’s new curfew and escort policies will make a difference.
“Nobody really cared about that curfew at all,” said Brendan Smith, 15. “The police, they wasn’t really doing nothing either because I went to a downtown trend before and I didn’t leave it till like 1 a.m.”
Lightfoot said she had no choice but to impose the curfew and escort policy, arguing there was a “general consensus” among her team, clergy and youth groups consulted that this was “the right way to move forward.”
Holliday was critical, asking why the city didn’t plan for the big “trends” gathering downtown.
Vondale Singleton, who founded C.H.A.M.P.S and is the CEO, said young people need to have a say in making these policies and to feel a sense of ownership.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Hey, this is the curfew,’ ” he said. “I think we have to figure out how we address the mindset issues, the divestment, creating economic empowerment through jobs.”
The students said there should be more mentorship programs like CHAMPS, with activities teens would actually want to do on the weekends. He said recently the group went to a White Sox game where they also met rapper Lil Durk.
Earlier this school year, the boys wrote a list of life goals. Holliday felt heartbroken that one of her son’s goals was living to see the age of 21. Other students had a similar goal. But the boys offered some comfort to Holliday. They all said they would pick something from Seandell’s list and add it to their own.
Holliday offered a balm of her own. She let them in on something that struck her the other day. While her younger children were playing, she was stunned when they told her that Seandell had talked to them.
“He said ‘he good,’ ” she told the boys. “He told the kids, he good, he good.”
As the period came to a close, Holliday told the students to visit her house. As promised at the beginning of class, she gave each boy a tight hug.
“I had to come down here and see y’all,” she said. “I appreciate being in your presence.”
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.
WBEZ misidentified a student in a photo. The correct name of the student in the last photo hugging Chanell Holliday is Montrel Robinson.