I usually wait until spring to start inviting Philadelphians affected by gun violence to the Art Museum steps.
But this year, I made my first invite just a few weeks into the new year:
A 6-year-old from St. Mary Interparochial School.
John Koger had been listening when his teacher, Veronica O’Connor, read her first graders a book about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to honor the civil rights leader, and he realized something many Philadelphians still don’t get — that gun violence affects us all.
Later that day, John and his mom, Susan Chernesky Koger, were walking home and chatting about what had happened at school.
“I have to show you,” he told her. “Ms. O’Connor gave us a worksheet about changing the world.”
Koger, who’d just gotten out of work at the American College of Physicians, was listening, but focused on getting the door open of their Queen Village home.
What did you say? she asked.
“What we would do about changing the world …,” John said.
“Oh, that’s nice …. And what did you say?” she replied, 1,000 percent sure it would have something to do with cats, specifically his beloved rescue Siamese, Lila.
“I want to stop the gun violence.”
Koger stopped, and whatever flashed across her face made her little boy ask:
“Mommy, are you smiling or crying?”
“Yes,” she said, giving him a huge hug.
She was both proud and heartbroken. Proud that the lessons she and her husband, Matt, a public high school teacher in New Jersey, were imparting to the boy about being aware of the world around him were empowering John to dream big.
But sad that in the place she was raising her son, any child, especially hers, had to fear gun violence. The family hasn’t been touched personally by gun violence. But there’s no escaping it, not in Philly, not anywhere.
And as John showed, that isn’t lost on our children.
Koger posted a photo of the boy’s assignment on Twitter.
“This came home from school today,” she tweeted, showing the exercise his teacher had given as part of the day’s lesson on Martin Luther King.
“If I could make a change in the world … the question on the sheet of paper read. To which the first grader had carefully written in pencil: “stop the gun violence.” He admitted that a teacher helped him spell violence.
This came home from school today. He said, “Mommy, I don’t know if I could do it, but I’d like to try.” #firstgrade #futureleader #philly #guncontrol @TheScottCharles @GiffordsCourage pic.twitter.com/9Kfec7bWp2
— Susan CherneskyKoger (@SusanCKoger) January 10, 2018
Koger tagged Scott Charles, trauma outreach coordinator at Temple University Hospital. Charles has been tackling the issue of children dying from accidental gun deaths by giving away free gun locks. She also tagged the office of former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was almost killed in a 2011 mass shooting.
“Please let him know that he’s got a fan — and ally — in me,” Charles tweeted back.
A little later, Giffords responded: “Our youngest leaders give me hope that a safer future is possible.”
Koger reached out to them because she admires their efforts in the fight against gun violence. But also because she wanted to encourage them.
“They do such good,” Koger said. “I hoped that if they did see it, it would give them more motivation, because I can only imagine how hard it is to keep going.”
I visited John, and Lila, last week. I wanted to tell him that he and I share the same dream.
Although, I admitted that like him, I often find myself at a loss at how to make that happen.
“Mommy,” he had told his mother. “I don’t know if I could do it, but I’d like to try.”
I wondered, if after having some time to think about it, he had any advice to offer me.
He thought about that. He didn’t, but he knew one thing for sure.
“I can’t do it alone.”
None of us can.
The next gathering at the Art Museum to call attention to gun violence in our city is still months away, but I already know who I want on those steps with me.
John’s coming. Are you?