When we view television coverage of a terrorist act in a distant location like a mass murder in an Orlando nightclub, the tragedy, though significant, is usually processed in our minds as a remote event, an abstraction in a sense. A text message arriving from a friend, however, can make what is abstract transform into something very concrete.
My friend’s text contained a link and informed me that one of the 49 innocent victims gunned down in Orlando by a domestic terrorist with an assault rifle was named Akyra Murray, and that she had just graduated on June 6 from our high school in Philadelphia.
When you learn of someone being murdered six days after they graduate from the very high school you attended, the mind definitely processes this information in a very concrete fashion.
Akyra was just 18-years-old, perhaps the youngest of those killed in the club. She was in Orlando with her parents, visiting a brother, celebrating her graduation, and planning her very bright future.
That future was most promising indeed. Akyra was third in her class at West Catholic Prep, my alma mater, an inner-city school near the campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, which are also partners of the school. She looked forward to pursuing her education at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania on a full athletic scholarship. On May 9, she signed her National Letter of Intent in front of classmates at her school, my old school, in West Philadelphia. [NOTE: Check the first two links in this article for some photos of Akyra and more detail about this tragedy.]
As a new graduate, Akyra was celebrating by traveling with her family to Orlando, home to happy family memories. But just days after receiving her diploma, she was dead, gunned down by a murderous, psychopathic terrorist armed with an automatic weapon.
The automatic weapon, it turns out, was legally purchased at a gun store by the killer, Omar Mateen, an individual with terrorist sympathies who had been under FBI scrutiny for the last several years.
An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer provided some more details about Akyra. “She just graduated last week,” her father, Albert, said by phone from Orlando. “She was kind, helpful. She helped everybody.”
Akyra also called her mother during the shooting. “I just tried to tell her to remain calm and apply pressure to the wound,” her mother said. “All I could hear was my baby screaming.”
As I read the story from my hometown newspaper and tried to get a fuller understanding of all of this, I wondered if I also might have had an unknowing encounter with Akyra. By another great coincidence, my friend and I visited the school on June 3 as part of a visit to see some of our former teachers. When we pulled into the school parking lot, just three days before graduation, we passed kids in the parking lot, in the band room, and in the hallways, all of them excited about the end of school.
I wonder if Akyra was one of those happy, excited kids, watching two old alums, high school “be true-to-your school” friends for 55 years, enter the building.
Yes, I will always wonder.
As the school conducts a memorial service for their honor student and star basketball player, her family, classmates and friends are trying to make sense about why an 18-year-old, a visitor to a club far from home, tragically in the wrong place at the wrong time, is now gone, the same week she graduated from high school.
John F. Kennedy was right: life is unfair.
“When I think of Orlando, I think of nothing but fun and joy and families,” Jimmy Fallon said on the Tonight Show the other evening. I couldn’t agree more.
After I heard the news, the first visual image that came to mind of Orlando, that magical place of fun, joy and families, was the It’s a Small World ride at Walt Disney World, one of my daughter’s favorites. And with being at my school a few short days before all of these coincidences, it has reminded me, yet again, that it is indeed a small world.
So as we remember Akyra and the other victims of this senseless slaughter, let us also remember a group of spineless politicians who, on April 17, 2013 – five months after the massacre of 20 elementary school children and six teachers and staff in Newtown, Connecticut – acted to shut down further consideration of a bill offered by Senator Diane Feinstein to reinstitute the previous ban on automatic weapons. There, prominent in that unholy alliance of 60 senators, was Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who voted with the National Rifle Association and opposed a measure that would ban the sale and distribution of military-type assault weapons from reaching the streets of Orlando and countless other communities in America.
Since that vote, we have nearly lost track of the hundreds of people who have died at the hands of people armed with military-type weapons that by their design are weapons of mass human destruction. Apparently Senator Portman, who voted way back in 1994 as a member of the House against a ban on assault weapons, is fine with the policy of doing absolutely nothing, as he demonstrated in 2013.
If I should meet Senator Portman campaigning between now and November, I will ask if he’s ever heard of Akyra Murray, a girl from a small school in Philadelphia named West Catholic Preparatory High School, a girl who cared about others and also cared about her family and the future that awaited her in college and beyond.
Yes, if I am to have that conversation with Senator Portman, it will, I hope, take the subject of meaningful gun control from the abstract to the concrete. It’s a small world after all, and I want Rob Portman to know that I wish to speak on behalf of Akyra, a fellow alum, and how her life was cut short by the very bad public policy he has supported for more than 20 years.
In trying to make sense of all of this, my continuing lesson as an educator is to be true to your school and to support all the kids that attend there now and in the future. And the lesson that Senator Rob Portman needs to learn is truly about being pro-life.
Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and a former consultant in the Ohio Department of Education’s charter school office. He writes about education issues as well as politics and constitutional reform.