Thirty-four years ago
Every now and then, I am reminded of of Malik, a seventh-grade student I taught as a first-year teacher in New Haven. When I think of him, I think of his mischievous smile and the twinkle in his eye. He really had a face you would never forget. I also think of the many challenges I had that first year, challenges that led me to seriously consider leaving the profession. Many of those struggles grew out of my own unpreparedness as a white teacher trying to teach black and brown students. My overconfidence, inexperience, and ignorance regarding the lives of my students meant that many of them could not find a way to learn in my class. I worked hard and I know I did my best, but in many ways I failed these students.
Unfortunately, I am reminded all too often of Malik these days. I say that not because he was one of the students who challenged me, but because of how his life ended. In 1997, at the age of 21, Malik was killed by a white police officer after a pursuit. Although Malik was unarmed and behind the wheel of his car, the officer shattered the driver side window and shot him five times, saying he feared for his life because Malik gave him a “go to hell look.” Since that tragic night, Malik’s family has fought long and hard for justice for Malik. Unfortunately, the story is too similar to the dozens of others that we have heard about in just the past year alone.
Thirty-four years later . . .
Malik was not the first or the last unarmed black man killed by police, as we all know. Yet, there are many who would like to think that these events do not portray a pattern of injustice, of systemic racism. There are states and towns across the country that are limiting classroom discussions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or anything considered divisive – incorrectly labeling such topics as Critical Race Theory. Schools are under attack, not just for following health guidelines of having students and staff wear masks, but for teaching anything that makes some students uncomfortable.
Teaching this year will be harder than ever. Following the lead of many brave and passionate teachers before me, I have dealt with these challenges by educating myself as much as possible and examining my own practices, particularly when it comes to race.
What have I learned?
I have recently been asked to be on a panel to discuss what I have learned as an educator over the past 18 months during this period of racial awakening. Here are a few thoughts as I reflect on this question.
- I’ve learned to get involved. Joining the Westerly Antiracism Coalition has connected me with passionate people from all backgrounds who are committed to making our community and the world a more equitable place. (After traveling the world, I’ve realized that some of the most interesting people I know live right here in my hometown.)
- I’ve learned to use my voice. I’m embarrassed to say that when I spoke at a Westerly School Committee meeting it was the first time I had attended or spoken at a public meeting in my town. With support from others, I am finding my voice and the courage to speak out on local issues.
- I have learned to listen, especially to black, indigenous, and people of color. Through reading, webinars, museum visits, and conversations with BIPOC, I have gained insights and knowledge that cannot be learned from a person who has not experienced oppression. (See the SMS Family Antiracism Circle website for recommended books for middle school students.)
- I now have a heightened awareness of my own biases. I know that I must continue to uncover and confront them so that I can be a better person.
- I’ve learned to be less afraid and embrace discomfort. Just as I tell my students, making mistakes is part of the process. The only way to not continue learning and growing is to give into the fear that goes hand-in-hand with stepping outside your comfort zone.
- I’ve learned not to be surprised or intimidated by the backlash that inevitably comes whenever there is progress in racial justice. It has happened each time progress has been made throughout our country’s history, and it will continue to happen.
- Finally, I have learned to stop making excuses. It would be easy to remain in a bubble of privilege and ignore the systems of oppression that impact others. I am learning to go beyond “cursory glances” of injustice (as described in this excellent resource from teacher Sherri Spelic), and do something about what I see. I also know that I have a lot more to “see,” a lot more to learn.
Are you on a similar journey? Do you wonder what you can do to create a more equitable world for everyone? Are you a teacher who is worried about discussing “uncomfortable” topics in the classroom? Tune in for the panel discussion on September 15, check out the resources I have linked above and/or contact me to discuss how we can support each other.
As I enter my 35th year of teaching, I hope that what I am learning will make me a better teacher, one that Malik would have wanted to learn from.