February 4, 2015

She had her fifteen minutes of fame when the St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote a cover story about her in November. I remember reading the story and wishing I could help. There are so many stories, so many people in need of our help. But this particular saga featured a young black woman, 18, her glued-together eyeglasses pushed up on her nose, who grew up way before her time.

LaTonya Williams and her mom and little brother had moved to a suburban St. Louis housing complex in Valley Park off Route 141. They had moved to escape the crime of the inner city and so that the girl and her brother could attend decent schools. The strip of apartments was so new that no public transportation was available. No sidewalks had been laid.

So this amazing adult in girl’s clothing, in addition to attending high school and assuming the burden of helping her family survive walked two miles one way to her two minimum wage jobs at Burger King and Bob Evans. What is the deal about a four mile round trip? LaTonya Williams walked the highway, the center strip of the highway—she thought it was safer there than the shoulder—in all weathers, in all traffic conditions.

She endured the lewd taunts of truck drivers. People leaned out of cars and threw things at her, this black girl in mostly white Valley Park. She endured. The family needed the money.

Her dreams were modest. How could they not be? Graduate and become a beautician or a cook. Take care of her family. There was no “to be or not to be” in this girl, as other young women of her age had the luxury of planning for a future.

And so she walked. She slipped on ice. She walked in snow, in the rain, in the intense summer heat. The sheer noise of the traffic, of the frustrated drivers honking their horns deafened her. Gradually she lost her fear of cars passing within two feet of her. Gradually, she stopped looking back—what would be would be.

Finally, the family was able to move to Hillside, a town with sidewalks and public transportation. They were closer to friends and extended family. Things were looking up. Hillside has a mall. LaTonya set her sights on getting a job in the mall and attending Normandy High School.

On January 27, 11:30 at night, LaTonya and her boyfriend Jermaine left the new apartment and walked to a convenience store for snacks. They made their purchases and set out for home. An approaching car swerved onto the sidewalk—no one knows why—and hit them from behind. LaTonya and Jermaine were both killed.

This is not a “Romeo and Juliet” story. This woman had endured a daily gauntlet of traffic and angry and stressed drivers and exhaust fumes and insults and come-ons, only to be killed by a car on a sidewalk, the driver of which had neither license nor insurance. This is an irony of a magnitude I cannot grasp.

The original story in the Post Dispatch was one about pluck, about the human will to survive, about family and caring. I remember reading the article and smiling. This girl would succeed no doubt beyond her modest expectations. Some employer, some Good Samaritan would take LaTonya Williams under his or her wing and hire an exemplary woman of fortitude and promise.

Some jackass killed her. He robbed her of future, of romance, of all that promise and resolve.

She lies in a funeral home with the name of Serenity. There is no serenity. There is your death, and you don’t get to choose the means.

(All my former students whom I love dearly, and who might be despairing over your plight, your lack of money or love or opportunity: how do you feel now? Rise up and go forward. Look behind you. Savor failure like it is honey. Open your arms. My arms are open to you.)

My dear LaTonya: I would have loved you, would have been proud to be your father, your uncle, your friend. I mourn the loss of you, sweet woman-child.

You need no escort of angels. You were one.

About Eugene Jones Baldwin

I am a writer: non-fiction, fiction, journalism (Alton Telegraph), essays (The Genehouse Chronicles) and have a website: I've published a couple dozen short stories and had eleven plays produced. Current projects: "Brother of the Stones" (available on Kindle), a book of short stories; "The Faithful Husband of the Rain, short stories"; "A Black Soldier's Letters Home, WWII,;" "There is No Color in Justice," a commentary on racism; "Ratkillers," a new play. I am an avocational archaeologist and I take parts of my collection of several thousand Indian artifacts (personal finds) to schools, nature centers, libraries etc. and talk about the 20,000 year history of The First people in Illinois. (See link to website) I'm also a playwright (eleven plays produced), musician, historian (authority on the Underground Railroad in Illinois, the Tuskegee Airmen) and teacher.
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