Trayvon Wiley Pettway III as Trayvon Martin in a music video being created by fellow students. (Walljasper/MEDILL)

Trayvon Martin teaches students at Julian High School

The mood was somber on the morning of July 18 as students gathered at Percy Julian High School in Washington Heights, on Chicago's Far South Side.

Less than 24 hours earlier the verdict was handed down in the case of The State of Florida v. George Zimmerman. The man who killed Trayvon Martin was acquitted.

Students at the predominantly black high school have grown accustomed to the grim reality of death – there have been 54 murders in the 3-square-mile Washington Heights neighborhood in 2013. But after Trayvon Martin was shot on Feb. 26, Alvin Henry, a Julian student, said he thought about his own safety a little differently.

While gang violence is a concern for many students, Henry says he hadn't really worried about violence from people like Zimmerman. “When the event first happened, it had me wondering. If that happened in Florida, it could happen anywhere, anytime.”

That July morning, the students discussed how Martin's death presented a different type of threat to young black people in Chicago.

While many of the students are not affiliated with gangs and are active in extracurricular activities, the room was tense with discussion of how racial profiling posed a real threat to students, especially when they travel through unfamiliar neighborhoods.

The discussion led the students to decide that they should do something to raise awareness of how Trayvon Martin's death impacts life in Chicago. A handful of students got together and put pen to paper. Three months later, the result is a soulful rap commemorating his death, as well as students who've been killed in Chicago. And last Friday, students put on an activity day for their classmates, using games they created to teach other high schoolers about the rights they have when faced with dangerous situations.

Wiley Pettway III is also a student at Julian and explained how he views the incident in Florida.

“He was walking home from the convenience store. He wasn't doing anything.” Pettway played the role of Martin in the music video being created to accompany the song students wrote. He shared his interpretation of what happened that February night between Zimmerman and Martin: “As you listen to the tape, he wanted to kill the guy, even though he was walking down the street. He wanted to. It wasn't self-defense.”

The games that students created were developed through a collaboration between the non-profit organization Freedom Games and the high school's game development program, which teaches students how to develop video games through various courses throughout their four years at Percy Julian. Christopher Weatherspoon, a student in the gaming program, says he has learned a lot from the video game course.

“It actually has taught me how to think, how to interact with people more.” Because of the collaborative nature of the program, Weatherspoon has learned more than simply computer programming. He explains that he has learned how to be a leader as well. “When you're on the other side of teaching, teaching someone else who might be interested in what you want to learn, it kind of makes me feel good that I'm actually getting somebody interested in what I'm interested in.”

The song and the games seemed to offer the students an opportunity to think about how they interact with the world beyond their community. While many participants on Friday may have been just as focused on socializing as they were on reciting a line from the Bill of Rights or answering a trivia question based on the United Nations' Declaration on the Rights of the Child, history teacher Jim Mannion said he sees value in the event.

“Unfortunately it's the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, but when we can bring the real world into education, that makes a big difference. It brings more focus to the kids.” Mannion draws a comparison to another tragedy that shaped how Americans see the world. “It's just like 9/11. 9/11 made everybody watch each other’s back. That's what I'm hoping for.”

Mannion explained that every Friday he gives his students a simple admonition. “Just be careful. The words I give them: Be careful. Be safe. Be smart.”

While the lessons learned last week were certainly valuable, staying safe at Julian will take more than an afternoon of games for most students. But the awareness gained is a start, and in the eyes of the school's staff, every little bit helps.

-Christopher Walljasper