Reflections

If Dr. King were here today, I wonder what he would say. I wonder what he would think. I wonder what he would tell all of us. Would he tell us 'Even though it looks like we're going to hell in a hand-basket, it ain't over until God says it's over!'? Would he shout 'Look how far we've come...and how far we have yet to travel.'?

- Reverend Arthur Cavitt
Jan. 18th, 2015


Rev. Arthur Cavitt
I had the absolute pleasure of attending the Archdiocese of St. Louis Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice at the Cathedral Basilica in downtown St. Louis yesterday. My little brother was the proud recipient of the Model of Justice award from his high school. The words above are from the homily given by the Reverend Arthur Cavitt - the Executive Director of the St. Charles Lwanga Center. It was a challenge to the 20 or so students from around St. Louis who received the award to not be stymied by the often bleak images we see in the media and in our communities.

In May, Angela and I are going to welcome our first child, a beautiful girl. Riding back to Kansas City from St. Louis this weekend, we talked about how we have to make sure that we expose our daughter to all parts of society, to all human conditions, to all races and ethnic groups. We have to make a concerted effort to show her that all people can be idiots; all people can be brilliant; all people can be caring; all people can have evil parts of them.

Every single person no matter where they've come from and what they've done in their past - all of these people have beauty and love in them. Every single person no matter where they've come from and what they've done in their past - all of these people are human just like she is. Every single person no matter where they've come from and what they've done in their past deserves her respect.

The question then is how do I translate this belief into my classroom where I am not the parent nor am I the moral decision-maker? What happens when I disagree with a parents techniques and methods? What role do I have to play when a student tells me that all white police are racist idiots and his best choice if ever confronted by the police is to fight as hard as he can to get away?

Today I think about Mrs. Lerner, my 1st through 3rd grade teacher at Red Bridge Elementary. I need to give her a call and talk about all of this, but for now I just have my (probably faulty) memory. But in that (probably faulty) memory, each year Mrs. Lerner took our class of mostly white, mostly affluent kids to P.S. 122 (or some other number) that was in the city. We would see their classroom and play some games with them. We would meet our pen pal that we had been writing to all year. And when it was all done, we would go to their gym and sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" - known in some circles as the Negro National Anthem.

So in honor of Mrs. Lerner and all that she did to open my eyes and heart to those who did not look like me, here are some reflections on how I try to do the same in my classroom every day.

Relationships Matter
If you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know that this belief in relationships is nothing new. I look back on my best teachers and realize how close I was to each of them on a personal level. They knew me and my family. They were invested in my life. They also put me in situations where I could experience the other, such as the story of Mrs. Lerner and P.S. 122 (or some other number).

Kids can spot a fraud from a mile away. If you, as a teacher, are coasting to the end of the school year, kids sense this and will stay closed from you. Likewise, if you are constantly asking about the lives of your kids outside of your walls, kids will start to open up to you and view you as a confidant. I've made two big changes to how I work with kids that have made a world of difference in my relationships with kids.

The first is to be totally present when I'm with kids. My first two years of teaching when kids would come into my class early, I would nearly ignore them and continue with my grading or my last-minute planning or with my e-mail to a parent about how their child was annoying* me in class.


*I would never use the word 'annoying', but that's basically what I would email or call about. I wouldn't look for solutions - I just needed the parent to know their kid was annoying to me and my class and that if they could stop them from being annoying, that would be great. I now make every phone call an actual conversation where I ask the parent about their child and what I need to know to help them be emotionally OK.

Last year I had a student who came and ate breakfast in my class every single morning. Her presence and the conversations that we had made me realize what I was missing out on by ignoring students who wanted to spend time with me. I decided to drop whatever I was doing and talk to the kids who were hanging out in my class. I ask about their families. I ask about other classes. We talk about sports or music. And I always - ALWAYS - nag them about work they are missing in my class. I now regularly have 5 to 10 kids in my room and in the hallway right outside my door each morning hanging out and talking. I've built strong relationships with kids who I've never even had in class.

The second big change is to value that which my kids value. I think that mothers innately have this gift. A great example is the #BlackLivesMatter movement that swept many parts of nation in the wake of the lack of an indictment in Ferguson and death and acquittal of the police officers in the Eric Garner case. This movement has its roots in 2012 in the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin. As a white male, I don't often if ever feel that the rules are written* so as to do anything other than help me succeed in life. It would be very easy for me to fall into the argument that, as a teacher, I should be teaching that ALL lives matter and arguing against the #BlackLivesMatter movement.


*This applies to unwritten rules as well, and probably more.

Let me explain why I think that is not the right way to teach my kids. The day after the Ferguson indictment was handed down, I cancelled my curriculum, turned on the news in class and spent the day listening to stories from my kids. You would be shocked - or maybe, sadly, you wouldn't be. A 9th grader who has been arrested 3 times already;  a kid who was threatened at gun-point when he and his friends were playing on a playground after dark when the park had 'closed' for the night; an 11th grader who works in the food industry who was instructed to "act more white" when serving white customers. The stories go on and on and on.

Via Cassandra Morrilly
So do I get the #BlackLivesMatter campaign in a personal sense? No I do not. As a white kid going to a mostly black school, I sometimes felt judged by the color of my skin, like the time that the student section at Excelsior Springs broke out the WONDERBREAD chant for me because I was the only white kid on our basketball team. But I never felt like being white hindered my opportunities. I never felt in danger in a particular situation and thought - Man...if only I were black this might not be happening to me.

I do get the #BlackLivesMatter campaign in an empathetic sense. I think that this is the essence of what it means to live the message of Dr. King. We are all connected, and just because I cannot personally relate to the struggle of blacks living in America does not mean that I cannot listen, empathize and do everything in my power to help effect change. I know that racism is out that and I know that it sucks. I also know my daughter will grow up experiencing and valuing diversity. Do all lives matter? For sure. But if you are black in America, then it is understandable that you have a sense that your life might not matter to everyone and every system exactly the same as white lives. I don't need to feel threatened by the #BlackLivesMatter campaign as a white male any more than a patient suffering from Heart Disease should feel threatened by a walk to raise money for Breast Cancer research.

Hard Conversations
I want to go back to the student who was saying that all white police are racist. I've known this particular student for 3 years now. I know he comes from strong parents and a very stable family. Yet this view of the world runs totally counter to what I believe. Is it my role to tell him he is wrong? Is it my role to call mom and express concern?

I believe that my role is to help kids to process their beliefs. You think your best option is to resist arrest? Let me help you understand what that really means and looks like. If you are knowledgeable of what comes after resisting arrest and confident with your reasons, who am I to tell you that you are wrong. But I do want you to know that there will be consequences, and they may be very severe. I may tell you stories of the Freedom Riders and ask you to really consider if you're ready for that kind of sacrifice. The majority of people in the world are not ready for that kind of sacrifice, myself included. But I believe my job is not to direct belief, but to help kids to process their emotions as those emotions become beliefs and conviction.

With this particular kid, we talked for probably 20 minutes about what he said. Other students were part of the conversation as well. I didn't try to convince him that his belief that all white police are racist and therefore he should resist arrest with violent struggle was wrong. I did, however, try to get him to think about what would come next.

Me: You've just been pulled over. What's your goal? Everything you do from this moment forward in the interaction - what are you trying to accomplish?
Student: To get out of the ticket.
Were you speeding?
I don't know. Sure.
OK - is it ever OK for a police officer to give a speeding ticket?
Well yeah, but not just because I'm black. 

I agree, but you were speeding.
I know.
So it wasn't because you were black - you were speeding. So is your goal really to get out of the ticket? If you're talking about making a sacrifice, what's really your goal?
I guess it would be to avoid being treated unfairly because I'm black.
And you think that punching a police officer in the face is going to get you treated fairly?
Hell no - it'll probably get me shot. 
And if that happens, have you accomplished your goal?
Nope, I'd be dead. 
 
We went on and on for a while. The conversation got a little heated, but we all I think knew that at the end of the day, we were on the same team with the same goal. 

***

I believe two important things. First is that it is almost always worth the time to have a conversation along these lines - one that is difficult but important and one in which the student is ready to engage. We may not have talked about our government curriculum, but the entire class was thinking about an important issue. When I tie that into the curriculum the next day, they are already invested. Second is that I could not have this conversation with the same results unless I had already built up trust. This student knew me, knew my beliefs, knew my background, knew my story. When I asked him hard questions, he knew that it was safe to give real answers. I wouldn't judge him or yell at him.

So today as we celebrate the life and message or Dr. King, I encourage you to find the other in your life and get to know him a little better. Have a tough conversation. Challenge a belief you've held. Make a friend who doesn't look like you.