She was the kind of person you noticed: outgoing and funny, with an infectious laugh and an intellectual curiosity that changed the tenor of every classroom she entered.
Embaba Mengesteabe died Wednesday after being shot in the head in West Philadelphia on Feb. 23. She was 15, one of 28 children shot so far this year in the city and one of four killed.
Her loss has gutted the community at Motivation High School, where she was a sophomore who had a report card full of As and the respect of every person she met, school staffers said Friday.
Virtual learning — COVID-19 has kept Philadelphia School District students out of classrooms for nearly a year — can be difficult for teachers and students, but Mengesteabe shone, taking her work seriously, asking many questions, engaging teachers in deep conversations, and encouraging her fellow students to do the same.
She wore her striking dark hair in puffs high on her head, even though some classmates teased her. And though she was learning from home, she showed up for virtual school one day in full Motivation uniform, because she wanted to set a tone.
“She was the student I was closest to, and I didn’t even know her in person,” said Adam Davis, her world history teacher. “Just having her in class was an antidote to the coldness of virtual learning; she had this ability to connect with her teachers and her fellow students. She was a fundamentally amazing person.”
At 15, Mengesteabe carried a great deal. She helped care for her older brother after he was shot last year, and was often called on to translate for her mother, whose English is limited. The family immigrated from Eritrea.
When caregiving responsibilities were particularly heavy, Mengesteabe reached out to John Allen Young, her English teacher, to explain why she was struggling a bit in class.
“I said, ‘For all that you do for your family, you should be proud of yourself,’ ” Young said. “She was this 15-year-old girl holding up her family.”
Motivation principal Rennu Teli-Johnson, also an immigrant, said she identified with the bubbly girl, whom she described as opinionated, but respectful. It still feels unreal that she’s gone, Teli-Johnson said.
Mengesteabe and her family “came here as immigrants, were here in this country for a better life, and now this has happened to them. This young lady had so much potential, she could have been one of the great leaders of our country, and she’s no more with us.”
Mengesteabe was shot in the head around 3:19 p.m. on Feb. 23 on the 6200 block of Chestnut Street, according to police. She was struck as she sat in a car with a 20-year-old man, believed to be her brother, who was also shot in the head, according to a law enforcement source. He was treated and released the same day from Penn Presbyterian Medical Center.
The incident was captured on video as two men fired dozens of shots, according to the source, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Police are still investigating a possible motive, but they do not believe Mengesteabe was an intended target, the source said. No one has been charged, and police declined to comment on the investigation.
At Motivation High, teachers and students were mourning the girl’s death on Friday. School counselor Tim Schrodel recalled that a few weeks ago, Mengesteabe had asked for his help gaining admission to a Temple University summer program she had discovered. Some teenagers skip niceties, particularly in written communication, but not Mengesteabe. She greeted Schrodel warmly in the email, and signed it “Sincerely, your scholar,” he said.
“She had a maturity beyond her years,” said Schrodel.
Mengesteabe was particularly close to Vibha Bhatnagar, a Motivation science teacher.
“She was like my daughter, a very affectionate girl,” said Bhatnagar, who often spent lunch periods with Mengesteabe, watching the Indian movies both loved. Bhatnagar vowed to help the young woman figure out which courses to take to best set her on a path to becoming a doctor.
“She was not the kind of person who would quit,” said Bhatnagar. “She was very hardworking, always looking to take on challenging work.”
Teli-Johnson, the school principal, said the student will be dearly missed.
“She was here to help everyone,” Teli-Johnson said. “She was not just our student, she was a leader.”