On Wednesday of this week, I popped into one of my classes excited to do an end of the year tradition with my kids; one that occurs in the midst of senior exams when kids need to blow off steam.
With foursquare ball in hand, and an enthusiasm that belies my knowledge of the misery waiting for me outside (78 degree with 70% humidity weather in jeans), I am ready for some juvenile fun.
But my students are not.
Casually sprinkled across desks with the self assurance that only comes from students who know I can inflict no more pain upon them, they are lost in conversation over their yearbooks. These huge manuals on school year 2014-15, blinged out in the gold and white and black of our school colors, are spread open to be personalized with promises of continued friendship and commemorations of inside jokes.
I love it.
But my kids talk is not idle. It is not mundane. It is not of weekends, beaches, work, and college.
It is of the latest STORY. One that happened on the heels of our Civil Rights DBQ-nit, of which we have debriefed and moved on out of.
"Section 8 housing," "cop," and "fourteen year old black girl," swirl around the edges of their conversation as I adjust to the room.
Oh, we are talking about this. The very class that groaned while we trudged through the early days of this unit can't seem to let it go.
The reason why is simple. These kids recognize this neighborhood. It is what our school's neighborhoods look like. Nice lawns, nice houses, nice cars.
My students are in the midst of parties of all kinds: All Night Grad Parties and Graduation Parties and beach week... and the kids look largely the same. Kids of all colors, hanging out together to have one last grasp. Surely, a party in their neighborhood could have too many people show up to it, some kids who don't want to leave after they are asked to, and well... you get the picture.
So, this is their wheelhouse. They get it. And we have just spent so much time on this issue, the language, the people in handcuffs, they see certain patterns that makes them more sensitive to this issue.
TL;DR on what we said? We identified these obvious issues, and then talked about why this reminds them of their own soon-to-be alma mater. We're a racially diverse school, upper-middle class to middle class; we have diversity in our peer groups.
We talked about who is to blame here. Is it the kids arriving en masse and overwhelming the fire code occupancy for the pool? Is it the white mom who confronted the kids with words that were disparaging and prejudiced? Was it the 'ninja cop,' throwing kids around like a bowling ball?
We spoke to what MLK, Jr. would advise: confronting the mother, allowing her to self-destruct. Do not engage, but document. Kids expressed pity for the mom, realizing that confronting these issues before they spiral into involving the law enforcement, even if it means NOT fighting back, will hurt that mom and her ability to provide for her kid.
And these situations always end in more damage for the community. Kids who are stunned by violent handling and having guns pulled on them, a police officer who struggles with the stress of the job but is now resigned, a community reeling after the national media pours over race relations.
It is not an easy, comfortable business.
In the comfort of my classroom, I think my kids feel a bit freer to discuss remote incidents around the nation, but also to reflect those questions back home.
Living in a suburbs of DC, my kids recognize that we are a diverse community. My students do have friends who don't necessarily have the same ethnicity or nationality or socio-economic status, but they do recognize that their friends are like them for some reason. They like band, soccer, football. They are in scouts, or do gaming, or like art. They work, they play, they have dreams. They have families with responsibilities: make good grades, watch younger siblings, care for parents and grandparents, contribute to the economic security of the family. My students also identify that the experience at our school is not necessarily the same for everyone who goes to school here. See, sometimes these pressures are missed by a school.
So, that brings me to an interesting idea that needs to be said: Teachers can make mistakes.
Just like other people, teachers do not like being wrong or making mistakes. They have standards that are reflective of their local community and national ethos. They care about teaching, not getting their students to collectively score a 100% on the state's standardized test.
Speaking for myself ONLY, I will admit I have made some mistakes in teaching. I have overstepped my own relationship with kids to try and prove a point and ended up hurting that student. (I will tell you, I know when I screw up. I own up to it, and I APOLOGIZE. Profusely. I am not proud that I am not perfect, but I am proud that I own my mistakes.) I have neglected students, or made assumptions about them that came to be totally wrong, and made my heart rip in two as a result.
I assume I am not the only one guilty of these trespasses.
These conversations involve so much painful engagement; you are challenging the status quo, after all.
I think about what it would take to create a bubble in a school to examine our own perceptions of the very kids we are paid by the tax payers dollar to teach. Here is my list, and I want to share it with you. You know why? Because I think teachers can change the conversation and fix these mistakes, too.
Photo via Flickr/Ted Eytan