The day the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri decided to not charge the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an event that was later followed by massive riots and protests, was also the day before my class of high schoolers was about to go on Thanksgiving Break.
Now teachers, you know what the day before a holiday can be like. And as a teacher, I had to make the decision of whether to talk about this nationally relevant, but politically charged and emotional event with my class, Or if I should just have them create hand turkeys and tell stories about pilgrims.
I decided to get into it.
The next hour of class was one of the most powerful moments I’d ever had since becoming a teacher. It started with some of my white students quickly condemning protesters and rioters, and denouncing the response of many in the African American community in Ferguson for how they handled what they were considering injustice. I heard things like, "No one should be mad enough to react like that." And, "They should find a better way to protest."
Meanwhile the black students in my room sat quiet. This conversation was getting heavy fast, and I wanted to hit the abort button. But then one of the black students in the room, who sat quietly the whole time with balled up fists, responded that it’s easy to not understand why they rioted in Ferguson if you’ve never been followed through a grocery store or stopped by the police for no reason. And then another kid talked about how his grandfather was lynched back in the 60’s, and one girl shared how her stepdad is black, and her family doesn’t go out much because of how people look at them.
Story after story flooded my room, and there was anger there, but also sadness and heartbreak, and it was all built up and raw, and the kids didn’t not hold back on what was inside of them. At the end of it, not everyone was on one side of the issue, or could fully empathize with the minority and majority in the room, But every kid in that class was closer to each other than they were before. A lot of that repressed anger was released, no longer bottled up, but out there in the world for others to attempt to understand. And most of the kids in my room attempted to understand it.
For most of the conversation, I just stood against the wall and listened.
It can be so tempting to avoid those difficult conversations with your students. They can be hard and uncomfortable, but they also have so much power to bring each other together. The stories and discussion created unity, and isn’t that what we want above all else?
There are students in your class who have very strong opinions concerning the recent events in Charlottesville. They have stories and experiences that are bottled up, and the chaos that’s been happening lately keeps giving them more and more to repress and feel angry and sad about. What if they didn’t have to hold it in anymore? What if we were bold, and created a space where we can actually get real?
You might have a different opinion than some of your students about Charlottesville. And you know what, that’s okay. Because you don’t have to share the same opinion with all of them in order to listen.