THE MYSTERY THAT STILL HAUNTS LINDA Lawson, seven months later, is that her 15-year-old son, Delondyn, did not want to go to school that day. Why, Linda doesn’t know. “I was thinking it was just the typical child thing. But now I wonder,” says Linda, who worried that Delondyn was becoming infatuated with gang members, “was he having problems he didn’t want to tell me about?”
Delondyn was an unusual kid, especially for Chicago’s rugged South Side. Short and stocky, he was a helpmate with a tender heart. Delondyn would always offer to clean and cook, no matter with whom he was currently living—his mother, grandmother, aunt or father. And when he visited his great-grandmother, the two would sit and take turns rubbing each other’s feel.
So Linda, 36, did not scold her reluctant son that fateful morning last November when he didn’t want to go to school; she gave him a pep talk instead. She talked about how well he was doing in his first year at Tilden High. How he’d joined ROTC and was singing in the choir and was certain to improve on the C’s and D’s he’d been gelling. Then she dropped the clincher. “I told him,” she says, “we’d go shopping after school, and I’d get him that little Georgetown [University] shirt he wanted.”
Linda let Delondyn off at Tilden on the way to a nearby secretarial job. She planned to pick him up again and lake him home at 2 p.m., during her lunch break. Like most inner-city parents, Linda perceived the danger to lie outside the school, not within it. “It really was a normal day,” she says.
Delondyn probably thought the same as he headed to homeroom at 10 a.m. from his third-period class. Even the ruckus in the corridor—where freshman Joseph While, 16, accused of stealing money from a dice game, was being confronted—was no cause for alarm. Hallway disputes were hardly a rarity at Tilden. But what followed certainly was.
Somebody look a swing at White, knocking him against a row of lockers. Suddenly, according to Lt. Thomas Byrne, commander of the Chicago police school patrol unit, White pulled a small semiautomatic pistol from his waistband and blasted away until he ran out of bullets. Three bystanders were hit—including Delondyn, who look a single bullet in the hack, piercing his heart.
An hour later Linda heard a radio report about the shooting at Tilden. It didn’t give Delondyn’s name, but she was worried. “I remember feeling real empty,” she says, “like something wasn’t right.” But it wasn’t until she got a call from a neighbor who had heard another report mentioning Delondyn’s name that she rushed first to the school and eventually to the University of Chicago Hospital.
“When I came through the door, I knew,” Linda recalls. “Someone said, ‘Is that the mother?’ No one had to tell me.” She was joined at the hospital by the boy’s father, Michael Pearson, whom she had never married but is on cordial terms with; her sister, Cathy Austin, had already been there and gone.
“Seeing my baby laying up there, that’s a feeling I can’t describe,” says Linda. “I think the thing that hurt me most was that I wasn’t there with him [when he died].”
Of the other two boys who were hit, one, Ching Wilson, now 17, required surgery of the intestine: the other, Barron Hall, 15, was shot in the foot, but returned to school in a matter of days.
Confused and lost, Delondyn’s friends gathered at the Two-story walk-up on May Street where Cathy lived. Linda had grown up there, and Delondyn himself had lived in the house until a couple of months ago. “They were all here, all the kids up and down the street,” says Cathy. “They didn’t know what to say or how to feel. They just felt a need to be here.”
His friends remember Delondyn as a blithe spirit, even though he was continually shuffled between relatives and had been living with his mother for only two weeks before his death. Linda had Delondyn, her only child, when she was 21. “What happened is I didn’t have my act together,” she says. “I moved out and left him with my family. But I always kept up with him. We were buddies. We hung out on the weekends.”
Cathy wonders aloud who is responsible for Delondyn’s death: “Do you blame the boy or the boy’s parents or the school?” The slate has charged Joseph White, who is being held at a juvenile detention center in Chicago, with first-degree murder. But Dorothy Wilson, mother of the wounded Ching, blames the school. She’s suing the Board of Education, claiming the shooting would not have occurred if the metal detectors—which were employed “randomly,” rather than steadily, at Tilden—were turned on that day.
Linda also wonders whether Delondyn would be alive if the detectors were used every day. But, just now, she would rather talk about the people who were touched by Delondyn’s life. “He just had all these special little relationships that everybody took for granted,” says Linda, her eyes tearing over. “I looked behind me at his funeral, and I couldn’t see the end of the line.” She talks about how in death, as in life, Delondyn—who used to cry and beg Linda and her sister Cathy to make up after their frequent quarrels—remains a peacemaker. “He showed us how we need one another, how we are a family,” she says.
“When I’m beating myself up,” continues Linda, “I think, ‘I’m nobody’s wife, I’m nobody’s mother.’ But Delondyn is still in my heart. He is still in my sight. I still feel like I can feel him.”
LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago