‘Better to light a candle … ‘

All children look forward to their birthdays. Cake, balloons, friends, family and, best of all, gifts.

But Khynief Hatchett didn’t get any of those things on Oct. 8 — what would have been his ninth birthday.

A gunshot to the head while riding in the back of his father’s SUV last month stole his special day, and all the others to come. Yet another innocent life snuffed out by a bullet intended for somebody else — in this case, the child’s father, Karl Hatchett, according to police.

So what should have been a birthday party last week was a memorial service instead.

"Did you know Khynief?"

The cousin of Khynief Hatchett posed the question sweetly and with wide-eyed wonder, befitting a schoolboy’s innocence.

Of the hundreds of people who turned out at Christopher Columbus Charter School — where Hatchett was a third-grader — many did not know him personally. Plenty of others did. Like classmates and their parents, teachers and school administrators.

At the center of it all was Khynief’s family. His grief-stricken father and mother, Nikira Carter, both wore airbrushed shirts with a photo of their son emblazoned across the front.

Carter’s brother and Khynief’s uncle, Michael Carter, was among the other relatives present. "I’m just so saddened by the loss of my nephew," said the 26-year-old. "I want to thank the community and school for everything they’ve done for our family during this time of tremendous loss."

Karl and Nikira have shied away from the media since the Sept. 7 shooting and declined requests to be interviewed.

But they remembered their son amid the glow of hundreds of handheld candles in the school parking lot at Ninth and Christian streets. Perhaps the most bittersweet moment of the evening was when Karl requested the crowd sing "Happy Birthday" to Khynief.

Religious leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic communities offered prayers and songs. "It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness" was the evening’s mantra, and one repeated by the congregants at various intervals throughout the hour-long vigil. Fourth-grader Nyjeah White and Khynief’s third-grade classmates read poems they wrote in his honor.

Everybody liked Khynief, according to Columbus Charter School principal Rosemary Dougherty, who described the student as a "fun-loving, happy child" who liked sports and his school.

"He was always involved in something. He was a great kid. Any activity, he was 100-percent there," she said. "He worked hard and was well liked by everybody. It’s very sad. We’re all very sad."

Dougherty and other principals organized the vigil with Columbus Charter’s Parents Advisory Committee because they wanted to do something in Khynief’s memory.

For the family of Khynief Hatchett, from the 1600 block of South 22nd Street, Oct. 8 was a second vigil.

The first one was kept by Khynief’s bedside at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he was on life support after the shooting.

Michael Carter — a school-board employee and community activist who works with children — didn’t miss a day by his nephew’s bedside. With the family unwilling to end life support, Khynief stayed alive on machines until Sept. 15.

Reeling from the death of their son, fate was about to deal Karl and Nikira another blow.

Both were reportedly fired from their jobs as preschool teachers at Head Start Learning Tree at 57th Street and Washington Avenue. The facility falls under the auspices of Presbyteria of Philadelphia. Presbyteria spokesperson Larry Davis would not confirm nor deny the termination.

Instead, he stated: "At this point, they are on leave and their employment status is under review."

He added that the couple had not reported for work since the shooting, but it was his understanding they phoned to say they were in the intensive-care unit with Khynief. Davis said it was also his understanding that although the couple did not request a leave of absence, under the circumstances, the school granted one anyway.

On the evening of Sept. 7, Khynief Hatchett was riding in the backseat of his father’s Chevy Tahoe — his 15-year-old uncle Jahlee was in the front passenger seat — when a bullet tore through the back of the vehicle, striking Khynief in his left temple.

The next day, police arrested Ronald Burris, 29, from the 1300 block of Catharine Street, said Sgt. James Schrack of South Detective Division.

The suspect was gunning for Karl Hatchett, who had a previous relationship with a woman Burris was seeing, the sergeant said.

At Burris’ Oct. 1 preliminary hearing, Municipal Court Judge James M. DeLeon ordered him to stand trial on murder, attempted murder, aggravated assault and related charges, said Assistant District Attorney Christopher Phillips.

Karl Hatchett testified that he spotted the defendant sitting in his car at a gas station at Broad and Catharine. He said Burris began tailing him, and when he swerved around another car to get behind the Tahoe again, the father sensed trouble.

Next he heard a gunshot, followed by several more shots, according to court testimony.

Hatchett sped away with Burris giving chase until he pulled into the 17th Police District at 20th and Federal streets, where the alleged shooter peeled off, the father said. When Hatchett turned to look in the backseat, he saw what no parent should ever have to witness — blood gushing from a hole in his youngest son’s head.

Detectives recovered a .38-caliber revolver from the West Philly home in which they nabbed Burris. Bullets test-fired from that weapon matched ballistics evidence recovered from the rear door of Hatchett’s car, the prosecutor said.

At the close of last week’s vigil, Nikira Carter collapsed in a sobbing heap in the arms of another mother. Unable — or maybe unwilling — to break free from the compassionate embrace, the victim’s mother wasn’t the only one who had trouble leaving the site of the memorial.

The crowd dispersed ever so slowly into the crisp night air.