RIP Williams Diaz... One of our favorite students... Dead in a Pool of Blood... Williams Diaz: April 13, 1993 – January 19, 2010

They say millions are a statistic but one is a tragedy. That tragedy for me was Williams Diaz, a 16-year-old former student of mine at Hammond Elementary School in the Little Village area, who was gunned down a few days ago and left alone on a sidewalk in a pile of blood.

Williams Diaz, Hammond School graduate — 1993 - 2010.The killings continue — and we stop and notice yet another young Chicago Public School kid shot down in their prime. The Chicago Tribune keeps count and publishes the number of students’ lives cut tragically short. But again those are just statistics.

For Williams it was another media blurb: "Police were called to the 3300 block of West 27th Street where Williams Diaz was found with gunshot wounds in the back. Police are investigating the death as a homicide and say it was possibly gang-related. They could not provide any information about possible suspects."

And usually that’s it — we read it so often, and then the story dies, and on to another killing, another tragedy, another statistic.

But this one hit home — our home at Hammond School. His first teacher who could not attend the wake because she starts crying at the mere mention of his name had Williams in 6th grade after he first arrived to this country from Mexico. He and Alphonso, another boy his same age who also just came from Mexico, were sweet and innocent and quiet with little mischievous grins.

Above, Williams Diaz when he played soccer for the Hammond Elementary School team in Chicago, with teacher and soccer coach Jim Vail. Substance photo by Dan Bartel. I remember she showed me their essays in class – entirely in Spanish. She was so thankful I arrived to help them.

They also both spoke only a little English. I developed a very personal relationship with the two boys as their English as a Second Language teacher. We joked, we wrote, we spoke and we shared learning about America. Williams was a very talented boy as his teachers could attest. He was a meticulous artist who joined the mural club. But soon those talents wove their way into his surrounding environment – etching gang symbols onto his notebooks and arms as his interest in school waned.

Williams was definitely curious and smart. He learned English fast and was eager to read what I gave him, though not always.

But they would say he was lazy and he was. He just wasn’t very interested in school.

But a little personal relationship with a teacher goes a long way. He asked me about the school’s soccer team which I was coaching at the time and I was surprised to hear he wanted to join. Williams was quiet and showed no signs of wanting to participate further in school. He only asked because he knew me. He had moves, his feet work was quite impressive and I kick myself — no pun intended — to not have gotten him playing when he first entered the school three years ago.

Williams was respectful and no teachers had any real problems with him. Sure he didn’t do the work, sure he didn’t wear his uniform properly and sure he drew on his arms and other things, but he listened and at times he learned. Especially in a small group environment with me.

Williams – some called him Willie – was my favorite student. He was a character.

This little tall spindly boy who said he crossed the border between Mexico and the U.S. several times was the only student in my seven years of teaching in the Chicago public schools who could engage me in an adult conversation. One day he asks me, “Say, Mr. Vail, how much do you make as a teacher? You make good money. I know teachers can make good money. I’m gonna be a teacher.”

Of course, it was funny to hear a lazy but intelligent student say he suddenly wants to be a teacher. But when we started to discuss salary and a union and the hard work involved, he followed me like I was speaking with a colleague. And Williams certainly lived like an adult. They grow up very fast on the southside. My colleague the soccer coach and I traded Williams stories. He told me one time about when he worked at a garage washing cars. He made decent money too until problems with the boss forced him to leave.

One day his teacher went to his home to get a note signed from a parent so he could be in our after-school program to continue learning academic English. It was surreal, my colleague said, because the person who answered the door looked like he just woke up and had no idea where William was. But he promised to get the note signed.

The promise was honored and Williams was in our after-school program.

Above, Williams Diaz's eighth grade graduation photo, Chicago's Hammond Elementary School.He drove a car, to my big surprise. But you’re only 13 years old. He and Alphonso’s eyes lit up when we discussed how they came to this city. They described, their English flowing like water, how they crossed the border. How they traveled a few days in the desert with little water and food. How they were picked up by coyotes and transported in dark vans. How they saw dead bodies along the way. Or how they were caught, sent back, and then tried again. And again. And again. And then they wrote and wrote — I still remember seeing the fire in their eyes as they wrote.

But there was the dark surroundings here, and it quickly closed in on them. The American Dream turned into the American Nightmare.

Alphonso started to hang out with the gangbangers and he took on an air as a tough street kid. He stood up to me one day, his chest puffed out, and I would have been very intimidated if I hadn’t known who he was.

Alphonso's mother couldn’t read and couldn’t control him. She decided to take an action that probably saved his life — before entering the eighth grade, she sent him back to Mexico.

But Alphonso was weak, Williams said with a laugh when I told him how his friend was always getting into trouble before he left. Williams said Alphonso would be the first to run when the police came.

They say it’s the quiet ones you should worry about. That was Williams.

He didn’t get into specifics, but the gang life was all around him.

He had a brother in Cook County jail. He had a sister learning English and who showed up to his parent report card conferences. His mother worked a lot and was not home. Our security guard said she bought him nice things like brand new sneakers to compensate.

Then came graduation day. His mother was ecstatic. It was one of the happiest moments in her life, said his eighth grade teacher.

We took pictures after the ceremony, me and Williams and Ms. Perez, our wonderful teacher’s assistant.

And suddenly it was all over. He attended Farragut High School. He showed up to our school one day in the fall after getting into trouble. He needed to do some community service, but never followed up. I saw him walking down California Avenue about four weeks ago, a few blocks from where his life would end.

Williams was a Latin King, they said. We attended the wake at Petrzika Joseph Funeral Home in Berwyn. His mother choose to honor her son outside the city to avoid gang attraction, just outside the Latin King boundaries.

On Saturday there was another church ceremony followed by a procession to the airport where Williams’s body would be flown back to Mexico.

And the next tragedy for someone, a colleague added, will be when his fellow gangbangers go after the gang that shot him. There will be blood to pay for their slain member. Williams died alone in a pool of blood. Another CPS student killed in the beginning of 2010. And sadly, not the last.

Williams — you and all you young Chicago public school students will not be forgotten by those around you who remember you. Forever Young. Williams Diaz: April 13, 1993 – January 19, 2010. 


January 26, 2010 at 7:31 AM

By: Susan Ohanian


Thanks for this moving, tragic story.

It is respectful but real, capturing the gritty substance so often left out of press accounts of violent deaths of young people. I don't know the answers. I'm still trying to find the questions we should ask, and I appreciate Substance for helping us find these questions. Certainly this account of Williams Diaz's short life brings up one big question. Substance notices these deaths. Teachers notice. Does anyone in the mayor's office? How about Huberman? Where does Williams' death fit on the Power Point for the Culture of Calm?

January 26, 2010 at 10:02 AM

By: Margaret Wilson

Retired teacher/parent

We have to find an answer to keeping our children safe both in the classroom and on

the street. We can't afford to keep losing these valuable human beings.


January 26, 2010 at 12:17 PM

By: kugler

stand up and stop the abuse

students need positive experiences in safe environments. the first step to stopping this type of tragedy is to get rid of the corruption in the board of education. only then can the school system even start to expect that the youth will begin to trust the adults who say "Trust Me"

it is the job of the adults to lead buy example and the longer we allow ceo's to drive two cars, unlimited credit expenses, patronage hiring, sp ed discrimination, then more damage and death will find the youth of chicago. we can not expect the youth to do right when the adults allow criminal activity and corruption in open plain view while children are deprived of their right to be educated in safe and loving environments while much needed programs are shut down and resources diverted to cronies away from the individuals that need them.

John Kugler

January 26, 2010 at 1:54 PM

By: Stephen Miller


How does a school like Cristo Rey avoid all this negative behavior? Is it just their no gangs policy? Or is it more than that?

January 26, 2010 at 2:05 PM

By: Geo

Cristo Rey is not model for real public schools...

No private, parochial or quasi-private schools (charters are quasi private in the real world) "avoids all this negative behavior." They simply don't allow it in the door in the first place, and they kick it out as soon as it shows itself for what it is. Every time a real public school is closed because someone believe the hoax of parochial schools like Cristo Rey or the bigger hoax of the charter school alternative, the problem is exacerbated in the remaining real public schools in the community.

The gang problem goes all the way to the top of political and economic power in Chicago. Chicago has the most developed and evil gang problem north of the Rio Grande River because of the great cover up. This year's version of the Great Cover Up is the stupid $60 million waste of money called "Culture of Calm." Ron Huberman in subservience to the mayor cannot admit that the problem is a gang problem in the city, where more than half the city's ward organizations are in some ways connected to the gangs. So instead of identifying the gangs and the drug trade as the focus of the problem, Chicago comforts itself, through the mass media, with nonsense like "culture of calm" and "youth violence as a public health problem."

Since there is a large dollar value on repeating those lies, and the RAP programs will pay well (RAP in this case stands for "Rent a Preacher," "Rent a Parent", "Rent a Professor"), Chicago will remain delusional. Which is fine with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune and the other corporate people who rule this town.

Any kid who has to live in one of the gang areas of Chicago can tell you which hand signs, colors, and symbols represent which gangs. Any kid who has been in jail or at the Audy Home can tell you which gang runs which part of that public facility.

Any Disciple will tell you that Amundsen High School is run by "People" and off-limits to "Folks."

And it's been that way for 30 years.

So this week, Mayor Daley has ordered the firing of more heroic veteran teachers under the latest iteration of "turnaround." As long as Chicago (and soon America) allow these liars (Arne Duncan, Ron Huberman, that babbling demented idiot on the 5th floor of City Hall) to continue getting away with these lies...

The deaths will continue.

Please don't ask me about some hyped up silliness like Cristo Rey.

Spend a week on the streets near where that kid was killed and then ask your questions.

Of if you're deskbound, Google "Latin Kings" and learn about the motherland either in South Chicago or west of Humboldt Park.

And then ask why if you can learn all that in a Google Search the people who filter reality for you can't report it on page one of the largest circulation newspaper between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

January 26, 2010 at 3:31 PM

By: Garth Liebhaber

My comment erased

I was one of Williams teacher and just took the time to write out a nice response to Jim Vail's wonderful article. I forgot to fill out the title bar, so my comment was erased.

January 26, 2010 at 3:44 PM

By: George Schmidt, Editor Substance

Comments are not erased. All three fields must be filled in, however.

Colleagues and friends. As many of you know, we only erase comments that are unduly noxious or libelous in the traditional sense (and anonymously so). Only one school has been barred from commenting on our report about it (Reed) because a bunch of middle school boys repeatedly tried to post erotic assessments of their principal and teachers. It was just silly, so I barred further comments to that article.

However, in order to have a comment posted, all three fields (above) must have something in them. NAME can be a pseudonym (although that's not favored by the editor); EMAIL has to be a real e-mail (I contact people with strange ones and DELETE their comments if they're trying to defraud us). TITLE can be anything you want, like "Veteran Teacher" or "Hogwarts Wizard" or whatever. However, there has to be something in each of those three fields. Then you have to answer our math question "to prove you're not a robot."

It's the best we can do. It prevents noxious spamming (at least so far) and allows the broadest commenting (even though I personally don't like anonymous blogging, as most know).

So let's hope you'll try again.

January 26, 2010 at 4:46 PM

By: kugler

17-year-old student in critical condition

Student seriously wounded outside Southwest Side high school

January 26, 2010 3:14 PM

A 15-year-old student was shot and seriously wounded as he left Hubbard High School this afternoon after taking an exam, school officials said.

The boy, a freshman, was walking near the rear of the school at 6200 S. Hamlin Avenue when he was shot in the back, Chicago Lawn District Sgt. Mike Mulligan said at the scene.

He was taken in serious to critical condition to Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. Officials said he was talking and stable at the scene.

School had been let out early, around 12:45 p.m., because of final exams, and the boy was shot around 1 p.m., said Chicago Public Schools spokeswoman Monique Bond.

The teen was shot near 63rd Street and Springfield Avenue and made his way back onto the school's parking lot to get to safety, where officials found him, Bond said. At least two gunshots were fired, police said.

January 26, 2010 at 4:48 PM

By: zeta

So True GEO!

The murders will go on; the children will continue to die in spite of our best efforts to save them. The answer is a strong coalition of teachers community and administrators all working on behalf of the children.

Not a group of employees fighting each other, suing each other and trying to take each others jobs. Can you imagine how many lives could be saved or enhanced if teachers in these very violent neighborhoods could focus on the needs of these children? Instead they are gathering up paperwork to justify the jobs of people who sit downtown, observe the nightmare and crunch numbers.

The comments regarding gang violence are true. Geo, you are so right so I don’t need to elaborate, you have said it quite well. The gang problem in Chicago is systemic. Gangs do a wonderful job for the City of Chicago. They can get federal money to supposedly help them, while lining the pockets of CPS officials and their friends with stimulus money.

Here’s another benefit of having gangs in the public schools, when unscrupulous principals want to attack tenured teachers they can get these troubled children to do or say almost anything.

January 26, 2010 at 5:32 PM

By: bob


Let us all pray the kid makes it.

January 27, 2010 at 11:47 AM

By: Stephen Miller


Thanks, Geo. So it is Cristo Rey's no gang policy. They just ship the kids to CPS and keep the cream.

And Chicago IS the most corrupt city in the country. Even the watchdogs, like the BGA, take dirty (Boeing) money.

January 27, 2010 at 5:34 PM

By: Garth Liebhaber

We Care About Our Kids

I was Williams’ art teacher. He was a good artist and in my mural club. It was partly for kids like Williams’ that I decided to become a teacher. I see a little of my youthful waywardness in him. Luckily I had a family and other opportunities. I always wished I could do more for kids like Williams. Perhaps to connect them to even more after school art programs. To me it seemed like Williams had experienced too much of the “real world” to be interested in abstract learning.

Something I remember about Williams was that he was in the Discount Mall a few years ago when the Immigration swat team raided it. The kids said they were made to lay with their faces on the floor. I asked Williams about the Discount Mall, but he didn’t want to talk about it. He always seemed to carry a quiet dignity about him. I just wished he hadn’t got caught up in gangs.

I’m proud of how much we teachers do for our kids, we really care about them. I know that our work does make differences in their lives, that because of us students have made better choices. I know that despite the frustrating odds, we have saved kids from the gangs and other poor choices. And even the ones that don’t seem to do so well, I know they would be doing a lot worse if it wasn’t for us.

January 28, 2010 at 12:58 AM

By: zeta

Teachers Do Make a Difference

As I read this sad story I think about three of my students who were killed. I was very distraught when Rita Haskins a Williams school student who was only 9 years old was killed. She was shot in the face in the lobby of the Dearborn Ikes Housing project.

Even though Rita was not in my class that year I had a special bond with her and her sister. They would come to my room everyday and help me in exchange for gifts toys and prizes. I remember the joy and happiness in her face when she would leave.

Even though there was nothing I could do about her home life, I spoiled my students

and showered them with as much care as I could give during the time I had with them.

I remember all the fun things we did together, the assemblies and parties and just having fun learning.

Another student, Tyanna Slater was shot on the bus shortly after Blair Holt was killed.

I also taught Derrion Albert for a brief period.

In spite of these tragedies, I don't feel despair because I know that every child that I have taught knows that I have tried to bring some sunshine and hope into their lives.

I can tell that Jim and Garth have done the same thing. You have added something special to the life of this child.

The caring you have given him ensures that he will be with you eternally.

January 28, 2010 at 7:24 PM

By: Moises Bernal

The darkness is capitalism

The darkness that engulfed and terminated this boy's life is a racist system that has little to offer the surplus people that it wants to super-exploit. Obama's America is a vile racist one. Some dogs are treated better than immigrants in this country.

Until you obliterate the profit system with revolution these travesties of injustice will continue to occur. We must plan the destruction of the system the engenders, crime, gangs, racist police, drug use, a culture of alienation and degradation, etc...

The opposite is egalitarianism, equality, fraternity, sisterhood and brotherhood, international and multi-racial unity...these are the relations that must be built to supplant the filth that surrounds humble opinion.


January 29, 2010 at 9:15 PM

By: Anonymous

Killed by his own gang

He was a king and was killed on 27th and Christiana. I understand he was viciously beaten before he was finished off with a gunshot to the back of the head. He was probably suspected of being a snitch/police informant. It definitely was an inside job. I hope they bring those responsible to justice.

June 30, 2011 at 7:17 PM

By: John Whitfield

Capitalism's Darkness, a Truth

The comment above about decadent capitalism is certainly a truth we should examine more closely.

On “Political Truth”

The relation of class truth to political truth is roughly analogous to that between class and party. To muddy one distinction is to collapse the other. Class truth becomes subsumed under political truth, and the masses are replaced as an agent of history by the party.

It is important to understand the terms class truth and political truth in very different ways. Only classes can create class truths, whereas political movements and organizations create political truths. Class truth is more fundamental; it is the class-mediated relation of subject to object, particularly evident in dynamic situations; it is the transformation of objective reality (as well as subjective reality) and thus of the truth, especially in society but also in some cases in nature. Political truth, by contrast, is a matter of how the truth is understood by political movements and organizations, often as concentrated in political parties; in the case of bourgeois and opportunist organizations, the only sense used here, the term political truth, it often means the instrumentalist manipulation of the truth, its biased reformulation and distortion or use of outright lies to serve political be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class.” A revolution creates a new class reality, and without the proletariat’s active role, there is no possibility of leading the people to create this reality; no party alone can do it.

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