My class read The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis this year. We talked about issues of race all year long, not just on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We had very candid conversations about our own biases and ways we could work toward improving ourselves as human beings, our community, and our world. But nothing has prepared me or my class for this.
While we were saying our goodbyes on Zoom, one of my students was on with his grandmother. Another was on with his mom. A third with her dad. The adults were anxious and I could tell everyone was watching my every move. I chalked it up to the end of the year jitters and being excited for a well-earned summer. The grandmother nudged her grandson and said, “Go ahead, ask her.” His face turned beet red, but I encouraged him to ask anything.
“Mrs. T, what do you think of all this? I mean everything with George Floyd and the riots.”
I realized this might be one of the most crucial moments of my teaching career. This was a moment where I had 3 generations of people from a small-town, pretty much all-white community sitting in front of me, and every word I said would be judged forever. This would have been the time when Mrs. T would discuss how racism is wrong, but so is hurting other people’s property. This would have been a good time for Mrs. T to discuss police brutality, race relations, and how the Civil Rights Movement is not over. But I didn’t. I realized that no matter what I said, I was saying it as a white woman.
“Guys, Mrs. T’s opinion on this doesn’t really matter right now. What matters is the voices of those who are hurting. What do you hear?”
My students said they heard anger. They heard sadness. They heard confusion. They saw angry people breaking things. They saw sad people crying. They saw scared people running. They saw confused people not knowing what to do. They saw strong people speaking. They saw people hugging.
I explained that there was a really smart man named Maslow who created a pyramid of needs. At the bottom was food, water, shelter, air, etc. and if people don’t have those things, they have a really, really hard time. The next level is safety needs, where personal safety, employment, resources, health, and property are located. I explained how when they are acting up in my class, I know something in the bottom two or three rows of this pyramid is probably out of whack. I asked them if they can think about how this applies to what is going on in the world right now.
“Mrs. T, maybe black people are rioting and destroying stuff because they don’t feel safe.”
We discussed how racism is very wrong. We discussed how vandalizing property, stealing, and harming others is also very wrong. But talked about how sometimes when people are harmful with their actions, it is because they are hurting really deep inside. It doesn’t make it right, but it is important to listen to the pain they are feeling, because peaceful demonstrations have not been enough.
We discussed how they can be part of the change. We talked about how even when they are scared, it is important to stand up when they see injustices happening. We discussed how listening is more important than speaking right now. They talked about how they can be friends to those who are hurting.
We talked about our own biases – how we are angry to see hard-working people’s belongings and businesses being destroyed. And how we might want to think that because Mr. Floyd had a criminal record that he was a bad man. We discussed how when we see young black men on the TV that we automatically think they are looters, but then see them passing out water bottles to protesters and police alike, or cleaning up the streets the following morning. We talked about how biases are natural, but it is important to reflect on our biases and work toward ridding ourselves of racism and prejudice.
I’m not a perfect teacher. I fall short in many ways. But I’m trying. I’m trying to help build a better world of tolerance, acceptance, and love. I’m trying to teach my kids to listen to the voices of the broken and the hurting instead of speaking loudly just to have an opinion. And I’m trying to teach them that they can be the change, no matter what color their skin is.