The death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent protests and rioting in Baltimore call the nation’s attention to the injustices that black men in America face daily. I developed this awareness at a young age, but did not have someone to guide me through the confusion and anger that resulted from this realization. As teachers, we have the opportunity to be critical guides.
In 6th grade, my teacher told me that we live in a world where equality is tested daily; that a black man will face significant challenges throughout his life. I did not fully understand this then, but I still knew that things would be different for me because I’m a black male.
My teacher opened a door to a very ugly reality without addressing the impact this might have on his students. I felt confused, scared, and angry, yet did not know how to express these feelings.
Around the same time, my predominantly black school had one white student, a boy named Michael. He was soft-spoken, creative, and eager to make friends, yet he struggled because of his differences. Michael had long blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin, similar to those I imagined as slave owners and segregationists in our history books. He looked like the police officers who raided our communities. Still, we were friends who played on the blacktop and drew pictures of the Nintendo character Mario.
Then, one day after school, a minor disagreement brought out a rage I had never known in my 6th grade body. I pulled Michael’s hair because it was blond. I hit whatever part of his body wasn’t covered. I aimed for his face as much as I could.
Michael didn’t fight back, but he cried desperately for me to stop. Yet I kept hitting and kicking, the anger rushing through me. I forgot he was my friend and that we laughed together and raced each other. No one stopped me, maybe because of similar feelings they harbored. Instead, they watched.
The next day during class I ran to Michael and hugged him. I apologized repeatedly, though nothing I said could take away what I had done. Still, Michael embraced me. His hug moved me and I knew the limitlessness of his forgiveness. “It’s OK,” Michael said. “You’re my friend. I know you were angry and I’m sorry for making you mad.” But Michael himself didn’t provoke all that anger, and he certainly had nothing to be sorry about. For so long I had heard stories of white people hurting black people because of the color of their skin, and now I had reversed the role. In my young mind, the hurt did not know where to go.
I wondered why I hurt Michael. My teacher had exposed me to the reality that black people in the United States face, and though the facts my teacher told us were valid, he did not give us opportunities to discuss these injustices. He didn’t realize that he might be building up hate and resentment inside of us. I don’t think my teacher meant to harm us, and he certainly wouldn’t approve of my actions towards my friend. Still, I don’t think he considered the residual emotions his stories left.
As educators, we can do more to help ensure that our students are not walking into the streets of Baltimore, or any other city, rioting with their displaced anger. Our children need a place to understand and channel these emotions. It is important that we see our students and the heartbeat of the communities we serve. Understanding who they are and where they come from is vital to their, and our, success.
It is not enough to just tell them the brutal truth. We must help children find ways to process complex emotions and be change agents in this world. Study civil rights movements by engaging students in a local campaign and find parallels. Show them heroes of all races working together to combat injustice, and point this out explicitly. Have students work on real projects to help in their communities, so they can channel their feelings into positive actions. Allow them to address their confusion. If you don’t provide children with safe places to talk, process, and act, who will?
Race is something that can’t be avoided and it is better understood when discussed honestly. Children are social beings, sensitive, and easily influenced. When teaching sensitive lessons such as civil rights, we cannot step away from the truth, but we must provide space to talk and ask questions. You do not have to be an expert to do this, as there are great online resources to help you facilitate conversations with your students. By providing education that moves beyond the facts, we help promote character traits like the empathy to identify with the humanity in others, the courage that it takes to be upstanders, and the resilience and perseverance to keep pushing when the odds feel against you.
Emphasizing race as a social construct is meaningless when there are more and more videos of unarmed black men dying. We can’t combat the totality of racism, injustice, or inequality, but as teachers we do hold the key to the heart and minds of future adults who I believe can change this country.
Yes, racism exists today, but we as teachers can defeat this type of hate by uniting our children with the idea that love is more powerful. We can listen to their hearts, explore their fears, and clarify their misunderstandings with the same planning and thoughtfulness put into an academic lesson. They will be tested on this daily.
To my childhood friend Michael, I have no idea where you are, but know that you have helped me to become a better person. Thank you for forgiving me and teaching me the life lesson that we, as teachers, must support our students as they navigate through the harsh truths of our society, and enable them to make the world a more loving place.