There are so many reasons you should know Will Keeps. You should know him as a survivor of child sexual abuse by his stepfather. He survived with the kind of scars you can’t see.
You should know him as a survivor of gang life. He witnessed a murder. A gang member put a gun to his head but it jammed. So they beat him with a baseball bat and stabbed him. They left him for dead. He survived with the kind of scars you can see. But he grew stronger and he changed his ways. He became a force for good.
You should know him for his hip-hop music. You should know him for his efforts to help young people avoid the life he endured as a child. You should know him because he once convinced Des Moines Police Chief Dana Wingert to be in a rap video.
Here is how you should not know Will Keeps: as a victim.
And yet Monday, he was.
He was escorting an 18-year-old gang member out of the school he started for troubled kids called Starts Right Here. The man unexpectedly pulled out a 9mm and shot Keeps and two students at the school.
The students died.
One was 16. The other was 18.
Will was trying to save those kids from the life he endured.
But the bloodlust of gangs keeps no company with the goodwill and hard work of men such as Will Keeps. It must be slaked regardless of the reason.
The greatest gift any of us will ever receive is life. And these moments remind us not only how fragile it is, but how cheaply people treat it.
This shooting, I’m told, was in retaliation for a previous, non-fatal shooting. Violence begets more violence.
One person got hurt. Two people died. A third fights for his life in a hospital.
The alleged shooter is in jail. If convicted, he will die in a prison cell, an old man who never really lived yet took at least two lives.
I wish this were an isolated incident. I wish this is where the story ends.
Soon, there will be more violence. Maybe more people will die.
Blood for blood until the last drop from the last child washes down the sewer.
I know Will Keeps. I met him when I was a columnist for the newspaper in Des Moines.
He is the kind of man who looks you in the eye when he shakes your hand. He talks openly about the pain he’s endured, not for sympathy, but to inspire hope.
Keeps has been through as much hell on earth as a person can endure and still believes he can make the world a better place.
We always talked about doing something together – a project that told people what kids were really going through in Des Moines and throughout Iowa.
He always greeted me with a big smile and reminded me of the good he thought we could do together.
But my job changed. Then the greedy corporate hustlers cut me.
I lost track of Will, though he would occasionally send me a message through Facebook.
Every message sent encouragement.
I have been blessed with a lifetime’s worth of good teachers. Will is one of the many reasons I try to impress the importance of theme and motif on sixth graders every day.
The world changes so fast. I went to middle school in Winterset. I fretted over bullies, girls, and being the worst baseball player in the whole league.
I never worried about bullets. We were a rural enough town that sometimes kids came to school right from the fields with their long guns in their trucks during hunting season.
Nobody thought anything of it.
Now kids kill each other.
We have drills at school for internal and external threats. We don’t call them active shooter drills, but that’s what they are.
I remember the first time we ran one, a kid crawled over to me his eyes wide with fear.
He begged me: “Is this real or just a drill?”
I assured him it was just a drill.
But what had this 11-year-old boy already seen – already lived through – to have such fear in his eyes.
He is living with a burden I struggle to imagine. He knows the fear of death – not from disease or accident, the way most of us die – but from violence, maybe even a gun.
And that is where a profound sadness sets in upon me.
How can I help them? How can I show that, yes, education is the antidote to ignorance and knowledge is a path away from life looking over your shoulder.
Then I remember Will Keeps. He’s in a hospital, fighting for his life.
I’ll bet when he wakes up, he’s going to ask after his kids.
And when he finds out they’re gone, he’ll grieve.
But he will get out of that bed, get his strength back, and soon he’ll be trying to help again.
Will Keeps will not surrender. He knows the cost is too high.
I will not give up, either. We cannot afford to.
The cost is just too high.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.