“But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker…what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable.”
-Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
In November of 2014, I had one of my most difficult days of teaching.
It wasn’t because of student behavior or because something happened at school.
On November 24, 2014, a Grand Jury ruled Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the shooting of Michael Brown– and 18 year old college-bound senior in high school.
Darren Wilson wasn’t just found not-guilty; he didn’t even see trial. A Grand Jury decided it wasn’t even worth a court’s time to evaluate.
On November 25, 2014, I went to work to teach 134 students of color, ranging in ages from 14-19 years old.
I went into work, faced these children, and answered their questions.
What does the ruling mean?
Why isn’t there going to be a trial?
Do you think he did it?
What if that happened in New York?
If you were on the jury, how would you have voted?
There were a lot more questions, these are just the painful ones I remember. I remember trying to answer those questions honestly and with reasoning. I remember trying to explain the nuances of the Grand Jury system. In the same way I was trying to reason through the decision in my own mind, I was trying to reason through it with them.
The events of this week– the killing of two more Black men in Baton Rouge and in Falcon Heights– have brought me back to that day in November.
This time, though, my students aren’t 14 and 18 year olds. This summer, I am teaching for the NYC Teaching Fellows. My students are mostly 22 and 30 year olds, some 40 and 50 year olds. My students are Black and Brown and White and everything in between.
This time, my lesson wasn’t about a book or a poem. I taught a lesson to my Fellows about Reflecting on their Own Biases. We talked about how race and poverty and gender and sexuality might affect the way we act towards our students. We talked about race and suspension rates, gender and suspension rates, ability and suspension rates.
Meanwhile, all around us, it felt like Black men were being shot down.
All around us, it felt like White men in power were shooting powerless Black men.
Maybe my Fellows weren’t asking the same questions, but– in some ways– the same feelings of confusion and anger filled the conversation. Here we were, discussing our bias, discussing how to prepare ourselves and our students to make the world better, but all around us was evidence that the police weren’t doing the same. At the same time I was trying to ensure my Fellows– future teachers in New York City– would see their students as humans, White police officers were killing Black men without consequence.
I believe education has the power to bring about great change. It’s the reason I teach, both my 14 and my 40 year olds. However, America has shown that no matter how well I educate my students, they could easily find themselves on the wrong side of a police officer’s barrel.
As I reflect today, almost 2 years later, I think my lesson in November of 2014 would look very different. Instead of answering my students questions, I would have embraced the senselessness of it all. Instead of muddling through the incident, I would have sent them one clear message:
Be careful. You are in danger. No matter where you are or what you do, you may always be in danger. Be careful. Watch where you step and what you say. You are not safe.
This is a fear I live with everyday. In addition to worrying about graduation and test scores, I fear constantly for the mortality of my students, who spend much (if not all) their time in a low income neighborhood with a lurking police presence. A police presence that doesn’t inspire safety, but inspires fear. I can only hope that- if any of my students run into a police officer- it will be one who sees them as a human and not simply another breakable black body.