January 29th, 2013, was a huge day for me. The first shipment of my debut book arrived and I was just two days away from a big signing and appearance in Chicago. Elated over the fact that I was able to complete something that I initially thought wasn’t possible, nothing could kill my vibe. As soon as the UPS man left I jumped in my car and drove to my old high school, which also houses my male mentoring program, I.C.E.

It was only 10:55 a.m., but my mentees were getting out of school early and this particular day in the windy city tipped out around 60 degrees—we have a saying in Chitown when the weather breaks: “Ni**a’s will start to act a fool.”  With that in the back of my head, I had to make sure to remind all of the young men and women I encountered to be “safe and smart.”

Everything seemed normal when I got to the school; I was flooded with hugs and handshakes from all of my mentees. As I’m preparing to leave, I bumped into Hadiya Pendleton and she looked at me, smiled, and yelled: “hey,” with so much excitement in her voice. I gave her an equally excited “HEY” in response and told her to be safe getting home.

Finally back in my car, I began heading down the street and I look over and see a big group of my young people. When they recognized me, they threw their hands up in the air and said, jokingly: “Hey, Rich what’s up? We don’t get no love?” I pulled over, rolled down my window and chatted with them for a few. As I pulled off, I reminded them—once again—“PLEASE be safe and watch your surroundings while you all are hanging out today.” One of my little brothers replied:  “Yeah because you know that these Negroes will act a fool when they experience a little heat in the air.” As we all laughed, I once again see Hadiya; she waves bye with her big smile plastered from ear to ear.

I’m back in the house and I immediately chew through a few business calls to make sure that everything is set for Friday’s book signing. I’m literally in a creative zone, until I’m snatched back to reality by a phone call from one of my mentee’s screaming: “Rich, we just got shot at by the park and I think Hadiya is hurt!” I rushed over to the park as fast I could and the scene was completely swamped with police, paramedics and members of the community. I see a few of my own mentee’s running my way with tears in their eyes and I began to break down. They rushed Hadiya to the hospital only to pronounce her dead! R.I.P tweets and pictures dominated Twitter and Instagram news feeds.

The next day I got to the school before classes started just to be there to console and support the student body. Young folks were walking in; falling out; some scared to leave back out of the school for fear of their own safety. Some of my toughest male mentees became extremely vulnerable in public. The entire time I suppressed my feelings so that I could be there for them. But I was quickly overcome with anger thinking to myself: “Why didn’t I do more? We need to find the fools responsible!”

I mean, seriously, I talked to Hadiya about an hour and a half before she was slain and the last smile we shared together came from an analogy that really ended up happening to her. This eats at me still to this day.

It was media frenzy at the school for the next few weeks after the shooting. Hadiya’s name made international headlines. I remember trying to defend her honor at times on social media when people would say things like: “What makes her so special” or “They’re just trying to paint this perfect picture.” What people didn’t realize was that she wasn’t perfect—no one is—but she was simply the face of more than 500 young men and women who are victims of senseless violence; not just here in Chicago, but all throughout urban areas across the world. Hadiya’s murder bought attention to a growing epidemic, which is violence due to the lack of positive mentors and alternatives.

I used to feel that I failed Hadiya, because as her mentor, I couldn’t stop that bullet. I couldn’t stand in front of it and say: “Live on, the future still needs you!” Beyond that, I couldn’t help but think about the two young men who had committed the act. One of which graduated from Hadiya’s school in 2011. I realize now that I didn’t fail Hadiya for not being able to take that bullet or do more as a mentor; I failed the young killers. I failed them by being too timid at the time to stand up and take time to talk to them when I saw them around the neighborhood.

Over the last year I’ve realized that it’s easy to go into a school and kick off a program for kids who are already half-way straight, but it’s another to swim deep and reach out to the ones who society has written off. It’s almost like a bunch of people going to church empowering one another, while the ones who really need it are standing outside of the walls, looking in.

We have to get to a point where we are not afraid to “Fly High, and Swim Deep”. Hadiya is special simply because she has changed my perception and caused me to think about the individuals on the other side of the gun. No matter where we are in life, we all need positive mentors in our corner. Behavior changes with belief, but if we as mentors can’t be bold enough to swim away from the shore, we will never be able to change the belief of the masses in the deep. Rest in Peace Hadiya and may your story and the story of every slain person live on and cause us all to shift our priorities in our work! Because of you I now believe that I have the power to take back “Ch-Iraq.”

Happy National Mentoring Month! Celebrate by becoming a mentor today!