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redeyechicago.com

Imagine the life that Jonylah never had

Mary Schmich

March 13, 2013

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Imagine Jonylah Watkins' life if she'd been allowed to have one.

Imagine the happy version.

Her father marries her mother — that part really happened shortly before Jonylah was shot to death this week at the age of 6 months — and she grows up loved and cared for.

She turns 3, and her parents enroll her in a clean, sunny, affordable preschool where she learns to sing the alphabet, ride a tricycle and play well with others.

She turns 6 and leaves her baby teeth under the pillow.

She turns 10 and likes to dance with her two best friends.

At 16, she makes good grades in a good public school, though she just laughs when her parents say they wish she wouldn't wear her skirts so short. She still has the smile that lit up her baby photos.

Jonylah finishes high school, maybe goes on to college. Either way, she enters the working world eager and equipped to work.

She finds a job in her South Side neighborhood, since by the time she is grown, it's different from the place where she was a baby.

By then, poverty is no longer a way of life in her part of the South Side. Prosperity is no longer fenced into a sliver of land over by the lakefront and the University of Chicago.

In her new and improved neighborhood, not so many girls get pregnant before they're fully done being girls. Boys are no longer recruited into the gangsterhood before the age of reason.

And by the time Jonylah is ready for a job, there are plenty to be found.

The jobs available have nothing to do with the gun trade or the drug trade or the sex trade. They pay better than minimum wage. They allow young people to dream of a fruitful future.

A safe home, maybe a mortgage. A decent car. A stable family that eats healthy food bought from the nearby grocery store. These are Jonylah's dreams, and she knows they can come true.

Jonylah falls in love.

He's a guy from the neighborhood. He has never been in prison and never will be, because the neighborhood has changed for boys too.

Now that young people have more opportunities, more possibilities, the gangs have shrunk. Now that the gangs have shrunk, fewer boys are trapped in violent cycles of revenge, shooting to kill because someone shot at them or shot at their friends or dissed them on Facebook.

By the time Jonylah is grown, the gangs are so marginal that when the gang members who remain make trouble, the neighbors, empowered and unafraid, promptly call police. When something that sounds like a shot rings through the neighborhood, it really is just a firecracker.

Jonylah gets married. Her husband treats her with respect.

They have a baby.

Jonylah's child grows up in a safe neighborhood, her old neighborhood, where it's impossible to believe the crazy story some of the old folks tell, about how once, a long time ago, someone shot a baby girl to death while her father changed her diaper.

And that is the end of the happy fantasy.

There's not much evidence in Chicago today to suggest that Jonylah Watkins would have lived such a life, a life that by ordinary measures would be considered merely normal.

From the beginning, her life was tangled in violence and in a system that nurtures it.

"Another tragedy," police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said Tuesday, discussing Jonylah's death a day after a man shot her as her father changed her diaper in the front seat of a minivan.

You know things are bad when the word "tragedy" is preceded by the word "another."

The police believe that the man who killed Jonylah was aiming at her father; he was severely wounded and remains in the hospital. Police say he is affiliated with a gang. He has a record of crimes involving guns and drugs, which says nothing about how much he probably loved his daughter.

There are plenty of people in Chicago's toughest neighborhoods who make happy lives, but it takes a lot of fight and luck. The odds worked against Jonylah.

We can only dream that one day it will be otherwise.

We have to dream, or it never will.

mschmich@tribune.com