by Marcus Harrison Green
Childhood officially ends the moment you learn your friend was murdered.
Before then, regardless of how many years spent bumbling around on this spinning rock, there still exists a faith in the resiliency of tomorrows.
Your heart still clutches tightly to the adolescent conviction that tomorrow’s arrival carries with it hope, and luminous possibilities to vanquish whatever darkness engulfs your today.
But that belief evaporates once you hear the person you roamed high school hallways with, the person who helped an awkward loner endure a terrible high school experience, the person who helped you persist in your seemingly delusional passion for writing, died before his time, killed just a mile from your home.
I found out yesterday that my high school classmate Latrel Willams was identified as the victim in the fatal shooting that took place Tuesday night near the Lakeridge neighborhood. According to police reports, Latrel died after suffering multiple gunshot wounds. No one yet knows exactly what happened, or why, as the case is still ongoing.
Latrel’s fatal shooting was one of three to take place in South King County in a week’s span – receiving scant attention from our political leadership.
Speculation coming from local television stations, neighborhood social media groups, and Next Door haven alike, followed the typical script re-enacted whenever a black male is killed in a shooting in the South End. It must be a gang thing, the victim himself was probably a gangbanger, a thug, or a homeless person in a dispute over drugs. The usual monikers are painted on an unknown murdered black man, his life now a blank canvas colored in by an ignorant perception.
Initially, I gave only a passing thought about the shooting, caught up in the frenzy of a news cycle continuously vomiting up one dismal tale after the next.
My shame came from recognizing that I too had originally dismissed – just another sad tragedy, a story that happens to often- because I, like the others had casually reduced the life of who I thought was an unknown person, to a stereotype.
And, while I can’t speak to every aspect of his life, I can testify to those I knew. Latrel was anything but stereotypical.
My mind raced back to our high school days. Like me, Latrel was a black South Seattle bred student exported to a predominantly white, affluent school. Unlike me, he had hit the genetic jackpot. As the star running back our senior year, his muscles seemed constantly pregnant, about to give birth to another. Black Hercules, the “L-Train”, Latrel looked like the love child of granite and titanium.
Despite his talent for athletics, we aligned because we were still two people who never wholly seemed to fit in, unable to completely give away all of ourselves to an atmosphere that rejected a large chuck of our personas.
Each year I did my best to exhaust every absence I could from a school I dreaded attending each morning. I counted down every minute until the clock hit 2:30pm, bringing the sweet salvation of the dismissal bell, and the reprieve it brought from the shame of being black and poor.
But Latrel made my captivity there bearable. The star running back would sit at the cafeteria table with me, right at the exact moment I began thinking I had been placed in contagion because no one dared come within a 10 ft radius.
Naturally laconic, every word he spoke had purpose. He used them to convince a 120 lbs rail thin 5ft nothing senior to join the football team in during my final year of high school – as much as I hate to admit it the best experience of my high school years.
It was how he persuaded me to continue showing up to class after I had been warned that one more absence would result in me automatically failing the year. I had the bright idea to simply stop showing up to school so my parents would be forced, or so I thought, to let me finish out high school at Rainier Beach.
It was how he got me out of trouble all those times I was busy doing every single one of those lurid things teenagers swear up and down to their parents they’re not doing, but of course are.
It was how he persuaded me to finally enjoy a little bit of my experience at a high school I spent three and a half years hating with the raw intensity of a thousand white hot suns.
He rarely smiled, as he seemed to always be navigating his place in the school, and the world, along with his future’s course as a football recruit, but still fixed in my mind is the one he laid on our graduating class as he was named the athlete of the year. Though he was looking out at all of us, I kept thinking it was directed at me, saying, in his typical understated way, “We South End boys made it.”
Our paths diverged after high school, he went off to play football at Montana State, and I went California Dreaming in Los Angeles.
They converged again though, when I returned to Seattle, giving up one fantasy to pursue another.
I began bumping into him almost every day at the Rainier Beach library.
It was the only office space I could afford in the early days of the Emerald. He would be there just as religiously working on scripts for a show he had in mind to produce one day, our friendship was rekindled. We talked about our shared love of storytelling, contrasting our chosen mediums. His love for the visual was matched by mine for the written word.
For that, he had my kinship, but he had my respect for the fight he was undertaking.
He shared with me his long, protracted custody battle over his son that had lasted more than year. The child had been suffering noticeably in a toxic situation. I remember thinking then, the same thoughts as today: in a world where black men are constantly maligned for being absentee fathers to the detriment of their families, here was a determined Latrel obsessed with reuniting with his 12-year- old son, no matter the cost in money or time.
He would keep me regularly updated on the progress, or lack thereof, and we’d encourage each other to show up every day to chip away at our dreams. We struggled, strived and survived in those early days when our dreams seemed to be unable to escape irrelevance, and failure seems inevitable.
But his words lifted my spirit as they had a decade earlier, telling me whether “sprinting, walking, or crawling – just keep moving forward, Marcus.”
Months of Sundays have passed since we saw each other last. Childhood really is gone, and with it a reliance on tomorrow’s grace to speak words foolishly delayed.
He never waited to speak the one’s I needed to hear. I wish I hadn’t reserved my own in thanking him for feeding a scrawny kid belief who previously feasted on a steady diet of doubt. I wish I had capitalized on our shared present to express gratitude for steering a reckless teenager’s destiny away from the treacherous hazards along life’s turnpike. I wish I would’ve said I love you, Latrel.
But as you once told me, it’s never too late to do what needs doing.
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Chris Waits/ Flickr