The assignment for eighth-grade English students at Folwell School was to read the novel "The Outsiders," about teen alienation and gang violence in the 1960s, and use the book's themes to write about something personal and important.

Ny'kia Williams hesitated. For the slight, friendly girl with the soft voice and big smile, it seemed too raw, too difficult.

"You know you are thinking about it anyway," prompted her teacher, Ryan VanThorre. "Get it out."

So Ny'kia began to write:

"A horrible day that I had was getting told my dad had to go to jail. This was horrible for me because my dad and I were really close, as we could tell each other everything. My dad and I had a bond that nobody could break or come between."

Ny'kia's essay evolved over a week in her English class. It was a heartbreaking view of life coming apart for a 14-year-old girl, and a stark reminder that violent acts have many victims, and that many of those in the shadows are children.

In early May, Ny'kia's father, Maurice Verser, was charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Corey Elder during a botched robbery. According to the Hennepin County attorney's office, five co-defendants "recruited" Verser, who owned a gun, to help them steal drugs and money from Elder. Verser admitted to police that he shot Elder once during the confrontation, killing him, according to police reports. He has not yet pleaded to the crime.

One night, one dead, and the lives of at least seven families upended.

"My dad grew up living a rough life style," his oldest daughter wrote. "As my dad grew up, he didn't realize that there are many other opportunities in life because my dad always followed people. However, as he got older, he made people want to follow after him in his footsteps because he had been doing the right thing. For example, the last day I saw my dad before he went away was when he came to my house on a Tuesday and helped my mom redo the house and that's something positive about my dad."

VanThorre was so moved by Ny'kia's story he asked her mother if he could share it.

"We often read stories of crime expeditiously and dismiss these horrendous tales because we are numb," VanThorre wrote in an e-mail. "However, we, as a society, often forget there are usually children adversely affected by these events and are left in the swirling wake of despair and hopelessness."

After class one day, Ny'kia said she was deeply affected by reading "The Outsiders" as her father was being taken to jail: "There were things I could connect to, like when the boys dropped out of school and didn't have anything going for them. That's what my dad was like when he was young," she said.

"I'm the oldest child," Ny'kia said. "Me and my dad had a good relationship. I could sometimes connect to him, because he was a follower and I'm a follower. I think I have a lot of my dad's habits, and that's why we're close. Me and my dad never bumped heads."

Ny'kia spoke fondly of playing basketball with her dad, going shopping and sharing a love of music. "He never missed my birthday," she said.

After her father moved away from the family, something changed, Ny'kia said. The person charged with murder does not seem real to her. (Court records show previous convictions for drug possession.) She says she's learned from the book and her own life that people are shaped by their environment, but that they can also make their own choices.

"I visited him last Sunday," Ny'kia said. "The first time I saw him it was real emotional. He called us later and told us not to worry about him. I told him to keep his head up, and I love him and I don't want to see him in any more trouble. I hope that he learns from his mistakes."

"I'm glad you picked up on that," VanThorre told her. "That was one of the themes of the year."

"I got into a lot of trouble in the past and I would always go to my dad because he would be the one I could count on. My dad always told me to be a role model for my two younger siblings. As each day goes past I think to myself and say never give up, don't let people pressure me into doing something because that's what happens to him."

Instead, Ny'kia said she is looking to positive role models in her family, such as a cousin going to college. Meanwhile, writing about her pain has been so helpful her mother got notebooks for her siblings.

"A big thing we talked about was finding good ways to cope," said VanThorre.

"Everyone has a perspective and my perspective may be way different from what you think about my dad. If your dad is in your life don't take it for granted because you have someone there to be with you not everyone get to see their dad. Seeing your dad through a glass window ... can make you feel really bad but like my step mom told me just think of it as him going off on a trip. Seeing your dad in a orange suit can also break you down because not getting to hug your dad or not getting to feel your dad hands can bring you in shock. ...

"When I think about all this I also think about how my dad would always be by my side when I wake up and walk my brother and sister and me out to the bus stop on our first day of school. Now that he is away I think like WOW my dad isn't here to walk us out anymore."

Asked what advice she would have to kids who find themselves in bad situations because of the adults in their lives, Ny'kia said:

"I just want the kids to keep their heads up and realize what they have." • 612-673-1702

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