This morning, I walked into my office at work, saw a trusted colleague and friend, and started sobbing. It was one of those moments where I didn’t really know it was going to happen. I kept thinking I could recover, but it soon became apparent I couldn’t. We found a private space, and she talked me down off the ledge.
I don’t think there was any one thing that set me off, but the last few days have been personally tumultuous. With the news out of Ferguson on Monday night, I came in on Tuesday morning to a school-wide email from a fellow colleague that she planned on addressing the events in Missouri overnight in her classes and she hoped the rest of the staff would as well. I was conflicted. I know the conversation is important, and I know that talking all of this about openly and honestly is the only way to get to a better place. Things were just too raw for me, and I knew that if a kid started talking about how race played no role in Michael Brown’s death I was going to lose it. And that wouldn’t be productive for any of us. The focus of a classroom conversation like this needs to be on WHY people are so angry as opposed to whether or not Darren Wilson should have been indicted. The classroom needs to be a safe space for all my students, not just the ones who have the same political perspective on the world as I do. And I just wasn’t ready to maintain that kind of focus with my students.
So I chose to stay silent. The few times I thought I might speak up, tears welled up in my eyes and I had to stop. At lunch, some colleagues talked about how the conversations went in their classrooms. Most of the kids reported that they hadn’t talked about it, and in one class a group of African American Boston students were more than ready to get a few things off their chest.
I called the friend who taught that class later that night and expressed frustration that we weren’t taking a more collective approach to addressing this issue as a school. She challenged me to articulate which I’d prefer, teachers having the conversation even if they weren’t adept at leading it or simply promoting silence on the matter. I know that teachers can actually do more harm than good if they aren’t careful and deliberate about how they facilitate these conversations with students and I also know that silence sends a much heavier message. I just kept coming back to the idea that we needed to come together with some consensus as an institution about how to deal with issues like this.
Then I spent the rest of the night reading articles and blog posts and Twitter feeds about Ferguson, which didn’t help my emotional well being. One post (I can’t remember where I read it, but I want to say it was Tim Wise) mentioned that white privilege surfaces even in the liberal reaction to the events in Missouri this week. The post essentially said that if you are outraged by what is happening in Ferguson, you are still in a more privileged position than the millions of people who have had their fears reinforced by what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown.
That made me pause for a moment. I am absolutely outraged by the events that began last August, and at the same time, I fear for the day when my children will fall victim to the bias and prejudice that leads to innocent black deaths over and over, seemingly with increased frequency. Our son is incredibly impulsive as a six-year-old, and I worry how that impulsivity will manifest in his teenager years, especially as brown-skinned boy in our all white town with a nearly all white police force.
During my breakdown this morning, I realized that my real issue is the way in which my husband and I have to prepare both of our children for the reality that they need to treat each encounter with a police officer as a potentially fatal one, no matter how unfairly they feel they are being treated or how safe they think they actually are. And this isn’t something that my husband and I have experienced as fully as they will. I can attest to a certain amount of fear when being pulled over with my Human Rights Campaign emblem and rainbow sticker on the bumper, but gay men aren’t strapped with the stereotype of aggression that black and brown men are. And my fears are fairly irrational when compared to the statistics–not so for my kids.
After I recovered, I blew my nose and ran off to focus on Holden Caufield’s fictional problems, which ended up being far easier to do than focusing on my own. And now that the Thanksgiving weekend has officially begun, I am hoping I can focus on my family, give thanks for the love that keeps us together and the wits that will keep us safe. And next week, I’ll find the courage to steel myself from how very personal this all feels and chat with my students a bit about how Michael Brown is playing an important role in getting us all to talk about this country’s race problem.