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Scarred but blessed, shooting victim Tavon Tanner graduates

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Scarred but blessed, shooting victim Tavon Tanner graduates

On Thursday afternoon, with his mother eager to get him into the car, Tavon Tanner took his time putting on the triumphal costume of his high school graduation.

A brand-new navy blue suit, tailored just for him. A bow tie, which he had a little trouble attaching to his collar. As he stood in the living room and zipped up his green graduation gown, he laughed and mumbled, “I look like a priest.”

His twin sister shook her head.

“You look sharp,” she said.

If you’d seen Tavon in that moment, you’d never guess, unless you knew, what was hidden by those fancy clothes. A scar that runs the full length of his abdomen. A leg that still hurts when the weather gets too hot or cold. And years of wondering whether he would make it to graduation day.

“Let’s go,” his mother urged.

They had to get downtown to the cathedral. They couldn’t be late, not for this ceremony that felt like a miracle.

Graduation day came so fast. That’s what Tavon’s mother, Mellanie Washington, keeps thinking, though back in the summer of 2016 it was hard to believe that it would ever come.

Back then, on a warm August night, Tavon had been sitting on the front porch of their home on Chicago’s West Side, gazing at the moon, when from out of the darkness came the rat-a-tat-tat of bullets.

One of the bullets hit Tavon. It pierced his lower spine, then traveled up into his organs, doing damage that would never be entirely undone. He was 10 years old.

  • Tavon Tanner, 11, shown Oct. 14, 2016, was shot on...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner, 11, shown Oct. 14, 2016, was shot on his West Polk Street porch in August, with his mother and twin sister next to him. He was in the hospital until late September.

  • Tavon Tanner is comforted by his great-aunt Anitra Smith before...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner is comforted by his great-aunt Anitra Smith before he undergoes surgery to remove the bullet at Lurie Children's Hospital on Oct. 17, 2016.

  • Tavon Tanner lies in his bed after a bullet was removed...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner lies in his bed after a bullet was removed just below his left shoulder at Lurie Children's Hospital on Oct. 17, 2016. With him is his mother, Mellanie Washington, family and hospital staff.

  • Tavon Tanner tears up before surgery at Lurie Children's Hospital...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner tears up before surgery at Lurie Children's Hospital on Oct. 17, 2016, to remove a bullet that pierced his body in August.

  • The bullet that was removed from the shoulder of Tavon...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    The bullet that was removed from the shoulder of Tavon Tanner is held Oct. 17, 2016. Tavon wanted to see the bullet, but it was needed by police as evidence in the case.

  • Tavon Tanner is comforted by his mother, Mellanie Washington, after surgery...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner is comforted by his mother, Mellanie Washington, after surgery at Lurie Children's Hospital on Oct. 17, 2016.

  • Tavon Tanner, 11, looks out a window at his great-aunt's house...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner, 11, looks out a window at his great-aunt's house on Oct. 14, 2016. His family moved after the shooting.

  • Tavon Tanner walks to school with his mother, Mellanie Washington, on...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner walks to school with his mother, Mellanie Washington, on Nov. 28, 2016. He has started attending school for a few hours a week after recovering from his gunshot wound.

  • Tavon Tanner joins his cousins and sister in a dance...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner joins his cousins and sister in a dance during a family gathering on Thanksgiving.

  • Tavon Tanner, 11, at his great-aunt's home on Oct. 14,...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner, 11, at his great-aunt's home on Oct. 14, 2016.

  • Tavon Tanner, 11, sits with twin sister, Taniyah, at their...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner, 11, sits with twin sister, Taniyah, at their great-aunt's house on the West Side on Oct. 14, 2016.

  • Tavon Tanner walks to school Nov. 28, 2016.

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner walks to school Nov. 28, 2016.

  • Tavon Tanner has begun attending school part time.

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner has begun attending school part time.

  • Tavon Tanner sits with his mother, Mellanie Washington, on Oct....

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner sits with his mother, Mellanie Washington, on Oct. 14, 2016.

  • Tavon Tanner and his mother, Mellanie Washington, attend a service...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner and his mother, Mellanie Washington, attend a service at Greater Way Missionary Baptist Church on Dec. 11, 2016.

  • Tavon Tanner makes his way to school Nov. 28, 2016.

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner makes his way to school Nov. 28, 2016.

  • Tavon Tanner was 10 when he was shot on his...

    E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune

    Tavon Tanner was 10 when he was shot on his West Polk Street porch in August 2016.

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As he lay bleeding on the floor, his sister, Taniyah, stood next to him and cried, “Twin, don’t leave me! Twin, don’t leave me!”

His mother prayed out loud into the phone as she dialed 911.

Two months after Tavon was shot, I asked Mellanie Washington if the Chicago Tribune could do a story on what that bullet had done to her son and the people who loved him. She said yes. She wanted the world to know how violence ripples through a family.

The story appeared in December 2016, with remarkable photos by Tribune photographer Jason Wambsgans. But Jason and I knew that to make any real sense of what happened to Tavon, it was important to know what happened long afterward.

Mellanie and Tavon wanted the world to know too.

So for several years, Jason and I met with Tavon and his family annually near the anniversary of the shooting.

Tavon grew taller. He grew a mustache. He was always friendly with us, but the shooting had turned him into a quiet, watchful boy with everyone, and that didn’t change.

We last went to visit him in the pandemic year of 2020. He was about to enter St. Patrick High School on the Northwest Side, near the house he and his family had moved into a few months after he was shot.

He was nervous about the school. It was Catholic, strict. A lot of white kids. He wasn’t used to that. It was an experiment that might not work.

A few days ago, we went back to see him and to find out.

* * *

“At first I hated it,” he said.

We were sitting on his front porch, looking out on a quiet street of wooden houses and little well-groomed lawns.

He hated all the rules at St. Pat’s. Tuck your shirt in. No cellphones on your person. No facial hair.

“Why you worrying about another man’s face?” he remembers thinking, and he laughed. He was wearing a light mustache he’d have to shave before graduation.

Tavon Tanner jokes with classmates before their graduation from Saint Patrick High School at Holy Name Cathedral, May 16, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Tavon Tanner jokes with classmates before their graduation from St. Patrick High School at Holy Name Cathedral, May 16, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

But the biggest reason freshman year was hard for Tavon has to do with the name inscribed inside his St. Pat’s class ring.

He pulled it off, displayed the big green stone in the center, then tilted it to show the inscription.

Eddie Thigpen.

Eddie was his best friend from grade school.

“Gun violence,” Tavon said when I asked what happened.

Eddie was shot to death on the West Side at the age of 14.

“Wrong place, wrong time,” Tavon said.

He put the ring back on, stared for a few moments at the floor.

For a while after Eddie was murdered, Tavon had trouble getting up in the morning. It didn’t help that he liked to play video games late into the night. Mellanie always woke him up — sometimes by banging a broom on the floor of her bedroom, just above his — before she took her younger son to school and then headed off to her job at a nursing facility. Tavon would often go back to sleep.

“I kept getting called to meetings at the school ’cause he’s late,” Mellanie said, eyeing him in a tender-but-tough way from across the porch. “I’m thinking he’s at school — but he’s still sleeping.”

Tavon laughed when she said that. So did she. They both knew getting him through high school was no joke.

CPD detective Patrick Munyon, left, Mellanie Washington, right, and her brother Jurell Smith celebrate Tavon Tanner's graduation from Saint Patrick High School outside Holy Name Cathedral on May 16, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Chicago police Detective Patrick Munyon, left, Mellanie Washington, right, and her brother Jurell Smith celebrate her son Tavon Tanner’s graduation from St. Patrick High School outside Holy Name Cathedral on May 16, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

To make sure Tavon got to school, Mellanie enlisted help from an unlikely source — the Chicago police detectives she’d met the night Tavon was shot.

Even as they worked the case, Patrick Munyon and Kevin Lynn became like family. Mellanie was grateful to them, and they were grateful to her for trusting them and seeing them as human, not, in Munyon’s phrase, as “robotic police officers.” They raised money for Tavon’s St. Pat’s tuition, and, when Tavon needed a prod to get to school, they took turns picking him up. Munyon recently took Tavon to get a driver’s license.

Mellanie’s younger brother, Jurell Smith, stepped in to help, too. He’s taught Tavon how to paint a room, lay a floor and keep out of trouble on the streets, the kind Jurell fell into when he was young.

And little by little, something shifted in Tavon.

He grew confident, even talkative. Teachers noticed that the boy who once wouldn’t meet their eye now smiled, a radiant smile. He made friends at school, a group he calls “the brotherhood.” He loved going to basketball and football games, pep rallies.

“There’s a lot of fun stuff in life if you’re hanging with the right friends,” he said. “Friends that’s motivated to be something in life. When we catch each other getting off track, we make sure we talk it out. You catch a friend vaping, smoking, drinking, not getting good grades, you let them know this is not the person you is.”

Tavon Tanner looks up at the ceiling of Holy Name Cathedral during his high school graduation, May 16, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Tavon Tanner looks up at the ceiling of Holy Name Cathedral during his high school graduation on May 16, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

A few months ago, Tavon went on a weekend retreat at a monastery with other members of his senior class. Not everyone at the school knew about the shooting, and that was fine by him. He never wanted pity. But on the retreat he told his story and was buoyed by the response.

“They were saying they’re proud of me,” he said, “how I carried myself to act like nothing happened to me.”

But something did happen to Tavon. He never forgets. And he never forgets what might happen.

It happened to Eddie. Just last year, it happened to one of his twin sister’s friends, who was shot and killed on the West Side.

He still finds himself staring into space sometimes, just thinking about it all.

Once in a while he thinks about the man who shot him. That man is now awaiting a long prison term on another crime. Tavon wonders what it would be like to talk to him. Every now and then, he drives by his old house on the West Side, just to look.

Taniyah Tanner photographs her twin brother Tavon after his graduation from Saint Patrick High School outside Holy Name Cathedral on May 16, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Taniyah Tanner photographs her twin brother, Tavon, after his graduation from St. Patrick High School outside Holy Name Cathedral on May 16, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

Everyone in Tavon’s family talks about “blessings” when they talk about what happened. Taniyah feels blessed that her twin is still here. Mellanie feels blessed that he’s made it through high school.

Tavon feels blessed by his scar.

“I be looking at my scar in the mirror sometimes,” he said, “and I’m just, like: It’s a blessing. It just makes me feel like I’ve been through a lot, like I’m a tough soldier.”

* * *

At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Tavon marched into Holy Name Cathedral with all his classmates, row after row of boys in shamrock green gowns.

They fidgeted in the wooden pews under the vaulted Gothic ceilings while a priest said Mass. And then one by one, they were called by name toward the altar and handed a diploma.

Tavon’s entourage was there.

His mother, his grandmother, his uncle, the two detectives. Thompson Bailey, a Denver real estate investor, flew in with his wife. Back in 2016, they heard about the shooting on the news. It moved him to give Mellanie a car and fly to Chicago to help her find her current house. No way was he missing graduation.

CPD detectives Patrick Munyon, center, and Kevin Lynn, left, attend the high school graduation of Tavon Tanner at Holy Name Cathedral on May 16, 2024. The detectives worked his case after he was shot in 2016 and have remained fixtures in his life. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Chicago police Detectives Patrick Munyon, center, and Kevin Lynn, left, attend the high school graduation of Tavon Tanner at Holy Name Cathedral on May 16, 2024. The detectives worked his case after he was shot in 2016 and have remained fixtures in his life. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

And Taniyah, of course, was there, the twin who was by Tavon’s side when he was shot, and stays by his side as a friend and cheerleader, even as she still feels the shock of witnessing the violence. To this day, she’s skittish sitting on a porch.

The cathedral congregation had been warned not to cheer or applaud until all the graduates’ names were read.

Finally, his name was called:

Tavon Karvelle Tanner.

He strode across the stage and flashed his photogenic smile. Mellanie wiped away a couple of tears.

Then it was over. With the bagpipes playing, the young men in green gowns surged into the street, tossed their green caps into the air and hollered. Tavon stood on the sideline for a few moments, watching with a grin.

Tavon Tanner reflects for a moment after his graduation from Saint Patrick High School at Holy Name Cathedral on May 16, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Tavon Tanner reflects for a moment after his graduation from St. Patrick High School at Holy Name Cathedral on May 16, 2024. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

“It felt like I’ve accomplished everything I want in life,” he said, standing next to the friends he calls the brotherhood.

Everything? He revised. “Not quite.”

So what else?

“Making sure my whole family is financially stable.”

He plans to enroll in a plumbing apprenticeship in August.

But first there will be summer.

And he may grow a beard.

 

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