Last Friday, I went to the funeral of the 30-year-old man who was killed in the April 8th hit-and-run accident at 29th and Locust in Milwaukee.
News sources reported that the SUV he was a passenger in ran a stop sign on 29th Street. A westbound car with the right of way hit the SUV, pushing it into a light pole. Four people were involved; three of them survived with minor injuries. The driver of the SUV fled the scene and was later arrested.
The name of the one man who was killed was Orienthian Lee Morris, Sr. He was the father of two kindergarteners at our school.
One of them is my student.
On Thursday, there was a flier in my school mailbox with the details of the funeral, along with a note. "Let’s say a special prayer for these babies," it said.
I wanted to pay my respects to Orienthian Morris because he was in the habit of coming to our school to look in on his kids. He struck me as a good father who cared deeply about his children’s character and education.
One of these times, Mr. Morris stopped my classroom on his way to his second-shift job to give our nine rowdy boys a pep talk about what it takes to be a good man and human being. Any time any parent visits our classroom is golden. But dads? They’re especially special. They’re super tall and have deep voices and use big words that are nevertheless understood by 6-year-olds. Our boys were transfixed when Mr. Morris spent his half hour with them.
I was grateful to him for taking the time and lending his strong male voice and presence. He was kind and very articulate, and said that whenever I needed him to come back, to just let him know and he’d be there again on his way to work. Tomorrow if necessary, he said.
I saw him two times after that, under slightly different circumstances. Then one of the administrative assistants from our main office knocked on our classroom door and told us that the reason my student hadn’t been in school the last few days was that his father had died.
Due to parent-teacher conferences on Wednesday and Thursday, I was off on Friday, the day of Mr. Morris’s funeral, and I wanted to go to say thank you.
As I walked down the aisle of the church, my student was standing at his father’s casket. He turned and saw me. His beautiful eyes got big, and he said, "Teacher!" I bent down and hugged him.
The funeral was well attended, far better than most I’ve been to. When my best friend Greg died suddenly of a massive heart attack, the line to see him went out the funeral home and down the block. What I learned during that heartbreaking time was that if you want a lot of people at your funeral, live the kind of life that will make people want to show up.
As I listened to people talk at his funeral, I realized that Mr. Morris clearly had done that. He had loved and was loved. He’d been there for his friends, his family and especially his children. People stepped up to the mic and shared sweet and sad and funny stories. Some cried so hard they could hardly speak.
"Take your time," onlookers said. When Mr. Morris’s 6-year-old daughter said, "I love my daddy very much; I miss my daddy very much," the room broke apart. "It wasn’t fair," said his brother, "I’m angry."
There are two things I saw at Mr. Morris’s funeral that I’ve never ever seen before in my life. One is a father standing over his son’s casket singing him a song. "I will never stop loving you," it went.
The other is two 6-year-olds standing at their father’s casket crying harder than I’ve ever seen children cry before. It was not at all the same cry that accompanies falling off a bike or skinning both knees. It was 100 percent grief, too big for their little bodies.
What struck me that day is the ripple effect that any death, but especially a senseless death, has on people. I am bad at estimating how many people are in a place, but I’m guessing there were at least 200 people at Mr. Morris’s funeral. This doesn’t even count the number of people who couldn’t make it.
And that got me thinking about the ripple effect of the seven homicides that took place in Milwaukee in 48 hours two weekends ago.
One of them was the sister of another family with children at our school. She was an innocent bystander at a fight that broke out where guns were brandished. She was 17.
For the sake of simplicity, multiply these seven homicides by 200. Add them to the people who were at Mr. Morris’s funeral, and that’s 1,600 people who were affected. This doesn't even take into account the people who want to be at the funerals but can’t. The large church where Mr. Morris’s funeral took place could not have held them all.
After school was dismissed early on Wednesday for parent-teacher conferences, I ran home for an hour to heat up some leftovers and put my feet up on the couch.
On my way back, there were a half dozen police cars, a TV crew and yellow tape wrapped around a house three blocks from our school. When I got home after conferences, I read online that it was another shooting. No one was hurt.
I’d only known him for a little over two months, but I will never forget Orienthian Morris, simply because of that half hour he gave of himself in our classroom. Sometimes that’s all it takes. These brief encounters with angels that move in and out of our lives.
As we talked out in the hall afterward, something about him said he was trying real hard. Which I could relate to because I am trying real hard too. His friends and family called him "Rent" for short; a young man sitting in front of me at the church had it shaved onto his head.
Referencing the seven homicides in 48 hours, the preacher at Mr. Morris’s funeral stated, "Some people hate too much to love themselves." Mr. Morris’s father gestured toward all the people at his son’s funeral and said, "Rent was happy. He was positive. He would be tripped out if he knew this many people loved him back."
My student, sitting three rows in front of me, turned around, smiled and gave me a little wave. I gave a little wave back.
Goodbye, Mr. Morris. As one of your best friends said at your funeral, rest in paradise.