Remembering Faheem

Her son would be 14, and on quiet days, when her younger children are at school, Patricia Arnold sits and imagines Faheem as a high schooler, rebelling with budding independence, but is still “sweet and kind.”

Taller, he still tags behind his older brother, teases his sisters, helps around the house, and dotes on her, pleading as always: “Mommy, gimme a kiss.”

From her brown sofa, a large portrait of Faheem peers down from the opposite wall. It was drawn by an inmate in state prison, where Arnold once spoke about how violence stole her son.

One bitter cold February morning, five years ago, as Faheem Thomas Childs walked to school in his North Philadelphia neighborhood, two groups of men, who had been gun-battling in the days before, pulled out guns and fired more than 40 shots at each other.

A crossing guard was struck in the foot. At the schoolyard gate, Faheem, a third grader, was struck in the head, above his right eye. He fell to the ground, onto his backpack. A police officer rushed him to the hospital. He died three days later.

A mother grieved, and a city was outraged.

Five years later, Arnold’s tears come easily, along with her anger. She’s pained with the thought that her son, known in the family as Poppy, with his brown face, tight cornrows and warm, almond eyes, who became a national poster child for the city’s raging gun violence, has been forgotten.

“What are we going to do to keep the change going?,” she asks, sitting in her living room. “What are we going to do to keep these streets safe for our children? Everybody was around that day, where are you today?

She went on. “In this neighborhood, I can say they tried. But it is a change that went on?… No.”

Arnold, 37, remembers that morning, February 11, 2004, vividly.

Faheem didn’t want to go to school. His stomach hurt, but soon enough he was feeling better.

“Are you sure you wanna to go?,” she asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

As he headed for the front door, Arnold gave him her usual run down: Go straight to school. Watch out for cars. Don’t talk to strangers. And if somebody’s shooting, duck.

He nodded, and said “Mommy, gimme a kiss,” then ran out the door. He left without his two sisters. He didn’t want to be late.

Five years later, when Arnold walks three of her children to Faheem’s old elementary school, where they are now students, she takes the long route, careful to avoid the path he walked that day.

Outside the school, she notices the mural that includes his likeness has faded.

“My brother got hurt over there didn’t he mom,” her son Rasheen, 7, often asks. Arnold just nods, eyeing the police officer standing in the school yard.

Two men accused in Faheem’s death, Kennell Spady and Kareem Johnson, were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Police believe at least three other men were involved, but no additional arrests have been made. The neighborhood remains silent.

The parent patrols have dissipated. The school has a new principal. Faheem’s old classmates have long graduated.

“Every time I walk in that school I get a cold breeze,” Arnold says. “I don’t see no memory of my son.”

“They should have something in there saying ‘In Memory Of Faheem’ or ‘Stop The Violence,’ something … It could have been 10 or 15 more kids just stretched out on the pavement.”

Arnold, a stay-at-home mom, has eight children, including one step son. The oldest is 21; the youngest 6. And she has seven grandchildren. Shortly before Faheem was killed, she moved into a three-story, PHA row house in North Philadelphia to accomodate her growing family.

Faheem’s father lives up the street.

The family is close knit, closer now, says Arnold, who before settling in the house, once lived in a homeless shelter. The older ones have graduated high school and have decent jobs. And on special occasions they all fill the house with laughter, song and food. But “I know they hurt,” she says. “I know they do.”

Outside of her home, on the red brick, somone wrote in black marker: Faheem Thomas Childs RIP. Her sons keep the ink fresh. Two of her daughters have memorialized Faheem with tattoos. The younger kids usually wear something of his – a jacket, a shirt – with pride.

Her 19-year-old son Cardeen is quiet, too quiet, Arnold thinks. He idles around the house, afraid to go outside, while her teenage daughter Cashay runs the street, often missing her curfew. “I don’t know what’s in her mind,” says Arnold. “She won’t let me in.”

It was Cashay who braided Faheem’s hair the night before he was shot. When she does talk about Faheem, she just cries and cries, and asks her mother “why?”

“I don’t know why,” Arnold replies. “Things happen. That’s why I’m trying not to let things happen to you.”

It’s the same message she had for Cardeen when he was failing in school. “You can’t blame your brother’s death on messing up in school,” she told him. “You have to do what you have to do in school so you can succeed in life. He don’t want y’all to stop here.”

But in many ways, Arnold remains frozen.

“I don’t go out. I can’t trust nobody. I don’t do nothing, but sit and cry,” she says, tears flowing from her eyes. “I miss my baby.”

At night, she often stares out her bedroom window, restless. And whenever she hears the stairs creek, “I know it’s Faheem,” she says.

There are some nights when she hears gunshots.

“The neighorhood is the neighorhood,” says Arnold. “We mind our business. We go on with our life. I just pray to God nothing else happens to my children.”

After Faheem was shot, there were prayer vigils, rallies, meetings, promises and vows of no more. But Arnold says many of those who united with her in her tragedy have disappeared. She doesn’t say it bitterly, just as a matter of fact.

Then she says her property manager painted the front of her house, fixed her screen door, and hung an address plate, she believes for the media. Now she waits for minor repairs to her worn home.

Thousands attended Faheem’s funeral, an event looks back on as “ridiculous.” She talks of how churches “were bidding on my son’s funeral,” she believes to increase their membership and gain publicity.

“I wanted it to be private,” she says. “This is something that’s hurting me. It’s not a show. I just wish it never happened.”

Weeks later, some ten thousand people marched walked through her battered neighborhood in a “Save The Children” march, calling for an end to gun violence. It ended with a rally outside Faheem’s elementary school. Arnold remembers walking off the makeshift stage in tears, further pained by cheers of “We did it! We did it.”

“Did what?,” she remembers thinking.

Faheem was one of more than a dozen schoolchildren murdered that school year, on pace to be one of the district’s deadliest years in a decade.

“The march was to try and change things, stop the violence,” Arnold says. “When Poppy got killed it was kids getting shot. Then it was the guys getting shot, drug shots. Now every time you turn around a cop is getting shot. It’s always something … It can never be peace.”

Standing at her kitchen table, she pulls out a box, and shifts through the stacks of letters and sympathy cards regarding Faheem.“People gave from their heart and I felt every bit of it,” she says, holding up a Valentine from one of his classmates.

She then pulls out a flyer from a benefit held in her son’s name, which she says she didn’t even know about. The ticket prices were $100. She wonders to what end.

During that time, an anonymous donor called the funeral home to donated a tombstone. When Arnold called several months after Faheem was buried, the offer was gone.

At Mount Peace cemetery at 31st and Lehigh, a metal pole stands in a patch of dirt. On the front, Faheem Thomas Childs is typed on a laminated index card, yellowed and worn.

“My son doesn’t even have a tombstone,” Arnold says, tears rolling down her face.

Every February, Arnold and her family visit Faheem’s grave, where they lay flowers and candles.

“I don’t want to forget him,” Arnold says. “I’ll never forget him. I miss my baby. I miss him.”

They also light candles by the school yard gate where he was shot down, where thousands of people once marched.

“We should keep the change going,” says Arnold. “Keep trying to make the schools safe. Keep trying to make the streets safe. We can do it again. It just doesn’t have to stop from February 11, 2004. It can keep going.”

By Kia Gregory

The Philadelphia Inquirer

12th February 2009