I wrote this 3 years ago, and given the events of today in Charlottesville, I think the message of this story still applies to all teachers everywhere.
It was 2 hours before Thanksgiving break began, and my high school students knew it. If you are a student, parent or teacher, you know what I am talking about.
But it was also 13 hours since the announcement was made that the officer who shot Michael Brown was not to be charged with any crime. So I had to make a decision: to get real or not to get real 2 hours before the kids get their unadulterated freedom?
We decided to get real.
The conversation started by talking about what is happening and the reaction throughout the country, violent and nonviolent. Most of the responses toward the beginning of the conversation were along the lines of,
"It doesn't matter if the cop was guilty or innocent, you shouldn't respond with violence."
or, "If they want to be treated better, they should respond more appropriately and not act like this when the court case doesn't go their way."
This is how many of the white students in my class responded to this issue at first. And this response makes sense. They have been told to not respond to violence with violence. They see cable news show building after building burning down in Ferguson, Missouri, and white reporters' faces bleeding from rocks thrown by black people. Facebook and Twitter is FULL of memes and posts that use the words animals and savages. I approached the conversation with a similar posture. Whatever injustices might or might not have occurred, no amount of anger calls for this kind of reaction.
The black students in my class sat silent.
A tension was building in the room as the conversation dwelt on one side of the issue.
And then, I saw an African American student sitting in the center of the room squeezing his fingernails into the palms of his hands and making his knuckles turn white. Then he looked up at me and said with real and pure anger,
"White people don't get followed every time they walk through a store, and I've never stole anything in my life. It's always like this for us, we always get treated like this. We really needed a win this time."
Another African American, now more emboldened, said, "I walk with my mom through the grocery store, and they follow us around to make sure we don't take anything." Tears welled behind his eyes.
A white girl spoke up, "My step-dad is black, and people always give my mom evil looks when we go out in public because she's married to a black guy. That's why we don't like going out in public."
And an African American girl quickly spoke up, "I hate when people call me nigger."
And then an African American boy, one of the quietest kids in my class, said in just above a whisper, "My grandma told me that they hung my Grandpa when they lived in Mississippi."
The father of his mother.
The first boy who spoke, whose eyes were red with either anger and sadness, pounded his desk and said,
"I just wish God would have made everyone yellow."
We live in a country where a boy as magnificent as this one would would want to deny his color, culture, and heritage because of the way he is treated by society.
I cannot relate to this.
I do not know what it is like to be guilty of a crime before it is committed. I have no clue what it's like to have to dress like someone from another culture in order to get a little bit of respect. I don't know what it's like to know that my grandpa was strangled to death in front of a mob of people because he is black.
I do know that these stories that flooded my classroom when students were given a voice make me angry.
And I cannot imagine the anger I'd feel if these stories were not just stories for me, but actually my life.
As teachers, we can either lead our students through these discussions, wading through difficult and unfamiliar territory as we learn about each other and vow to create abiding change- or we can avoid these conversations, pretending all is well.
If we go with the second option, keep in mind the fact that all is not well, and our students' anger and sadness does not go away just because we ignore it.