Photo by Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

For Minneapolis North High seniors who know tragedy all too well, triumph reigns at graduation

Kai Darden lost his mom. Javayaa Puckett lost both her parents. Both teens lost a friend in Deshaun Hill Jr. But the homecoming king and queen persevered through tough times, and celebrated their achievements and the future at graduation.

By Mara Klecker Star Tribune

June 15, 2024

For Minneapolis North High seniors who know tragedy all too well, triumph reigns at graduation

Kai Darden lost his mom. Javayaa Puckett lost both her parents. Both teens lost a friend in Deshaun Hill Jr. But the homecoming king and queen persevered through tough times, and celebrated their achievements and the future at graduation.

By Mara Klecker Star Tribune

June 15, 2024
Photo by Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

Among the rows of chairs for Minneapolis North High's class of 2024, one seat remained empty throughout Friday's graduation ceremony. Had he not been shot and killed just blocks away from the school two years ago, that seat would have been for Deshaun Hill Jr.

"We keep him included in everything we have going on. He's always recognized and always remembered," said senior Javayaa Puckett, who had known Hill since elementary school.

Senior Kai Darden, who played on the football team with Hill and stepped into his shoes as quarterback this year, agreed.

"Deshaun is a big part of the class of 2024," Darden said. "He is like our symbol to keep going."

Photo by Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
Javayaa Puckett is swarmed by family and friends after North High School's graduation Friday at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Puckett and Darden's four years of high school have also been marked by other shattering losses in their personal lives. But their senior year has had its share of jubilant moments, too, all leading to the triumph of graduation and excitement about what's to come.

Puckett's family was in the audience, but her father's booming cheers, a sound she remembers from her fifth-grade graduation at Lucy Laney Elementary, were missing. Her father died in his sleep in April 2022, just weeks after the funeral for her mother, who'd struggled for nearly a year with a rare form of colon cancer. Still, Puckett knew she would feel her parents' presence and pride, as she often does in milestone moments.

The custom stole she wore was adorned with photos of her mom and dad — a way to ensure they both stayed close to her heart when her name was called to receive her diploma.

Darden, too, was thinking of his mother, of how much she believed in him and wanted to see him succeed. She died in April 2021 of a drug overdose. Before her death, Darden — her eldest son — had moved with his mom through many different living situations, including a homeless shelter, where he worried about her staying alone. He was still bouncing between shelters and relatives' homes when his classes went online during the pandemic. Lacking a laptop, he said he tried to complete distance learning assignments from his phone but quickly fell behind.

"It was just a lot," Darden said.

"From the losses that have happened before in my life, it's hard for me to cry. The tears are almost gone."

After his mother's death, Darden moved in with his dad and transferred schools to attend North High, where he joined the football team and quickly got to know Hill, the beloved starting quarterback. Hill welcomed him from the first practice, Darden said.

At North, Darden found a community and a new sense of stability following years of moving around. Then, he watched as his newfound community reeled from shock, grief and anger after losing one of their stars.

On that February day in 2022, when word spread in the hallways about a random shooting near the school, about a critically wounded North High student quickly identified as Hill, Darden let himself cry.

"I couldn't hold it in," he said. "Because in that moment, I just kept thinking 'We're still just kids.'"

Photo by Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
Kai Darden, 18, left, and Kentral Smith, 18, visit the grave of classmate Deshaun Hill Jr. at Crystal Lake Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Loss and perseverance

North High Principal Mauri Friestleben, who has a daughter graduating with the North High class of 2024, has known many of the seniors since they were in elementary school at Lucey Laney, where she served as principal.

Hill's death and the resulting outcry hit the North Side community hard. Hill's family filed a lawsuit against the school district, which was settled last year. And North High staff were forced to find ways to support their students while working through their own grief.

When she thinks of the people who inspire her to keep going — the people who've overcome loss and hardship, both in and outside of school — many of the seniors' faces come to mind. She was particularly struck when she saw Puckett and Darden win the Homecoming King and Queen titles last fall.

"When they were crowned, I realized I was staring at two amazing and beautiful children who had both suffered such intense loss," Friestleben said. "But they were just beaming, just glowing."

Those smiles came again at prom, which Puckett and Darden attended together. As they posed for photos, both wearing North High School's signature royal blue and white, Puckett reminded Darden to turn around so friends and family could see the back of his custom jacket. Under the printed words "My Guardian Angels," was a photo of Hill, along with photos of Darden's mother and late uncle.

Photos by Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
At top, Javayaa Puckett and Kai Darden celebrate with friends and family at Puckett's great-aunt's house before North High School's prom in May. "These kids have endured so much," said the great-aunt, Heather Warfield. All decked out for prom at bottom right, Darden adjusts his chain adorned with a photo of Deshaun Hill Jr. A seat was left empty for Hill at his class' graduation Friday.

"I'm very proud of the boy," Craig Darden said as his son made his last-minute preparations for prom. "He's had a rough journey but he made it happen. He's here, about to graduate. All I want for him is to be happy."

Puckett's great-aunt, who she's been living with for the past two years, echoed the sentiment.

"These kids have endured so much," Heather Warfield said. "They suffered losses and shootings, but they still went to school each day."

Puckett was back at school and back on the court for a North basketball game just days after her mother's death. Three days after that funeral, which her longtime friend Hill attended, he was gone, too.

Puckett was still in the deepest part of her grief when, less than three months later, she found out her father hadn't woken up.

"It still hurts to this day, but it took a long time for it to hit me," Puckett said. "They were both good people. They both pushed me to go higher."

Photos by Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
At left, Javayaa Puckett practices during a drum class at North High School. At right, Jordan Hurd, 18, Kentral Smith, 18, Kai Darden, 18, and Rocco Murray Pezzella, 17, left to right, hang out at Darden's grandmother's house in Minneapolis.

'They are thriving'

Puckett knew her mother wanted her to graduate on time, if not early. That dream felt impossibly far away by the fall of her junior year when Puckett was shot by someone she knew. A bullet tore through her leg, leaving her hospitalized for several weeks and unable to walk for nearly six months. She didn't return to school until late spring and was worried she wouldn't be able to catch up.

But she has. She attended summer classes and spring break academies and will graduate after a senior year spent cheerleading, dancing on the school's dance team and teaching dance to elementary students. Darden also comes to school every morning with a smile, Friestleben said.

"I know they still struggle, but they are thriving," Friestleben said. "Here they are, on the dance team and the football team, involved in their school and planning for college."

Darden is committed to Iowa Central Community College and will play football there in the fall. He's considering majoring in engineering or electrical technologies. Puckett plans to first attend cosmetology school and then go to a four-year university to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse.

In the moments before leaving for prom, Puckett and Darden posed for a few final photos with friends and family members gathered in Warfield's living room.

Janice Puckett-Moore wrapped her arms around her great-granddaughter, leaned over her shoulder and whispered a message to Puckett, one she planned to repeat on graduation day:

"Whatever it is you want in this life, it is yours. Now go get it."

Photo by Alex Kormann, Star Tribune
At prom, Kai Darden looks on as Javayaa Puckett hugs Derrion Davis-Benton, who wears a custom suit jacket decorated with an image of Deshaun Hill Jr.