Week 13: Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See

This morning, I woke up in a haze.

After attending the Teachers for Social Justice curriculum fair in Chicago this weekend, I felt empowered to move students in a direction that continues to empower them. On Monday, my mind felt less optimistic about my day at school, in dealing with both students and adults. After school, and for the last 100 days, I knew that there would be no indictment, not because I thought people would misuse the system, but because this is the way the system is set up. Justice assumes that everyone is human; our system doesn’t assure justice.

My fingers quaked while finalizing my lesson plan this morning, trying to think of ways my students understanding the idea of direct variation. With 30 minutes left until showtime, I didn’t know how I would interject with this bit of conversation. There was no guise for me, no book for me to weave Michael Brown’s murder into, no poem to deconstruct in the lens of social justice, no standards in our math curriculum that would allow for the can of worms I needed to open today. [Please don’t talk to me about statistics. Just don’t.]

The stomps and chatter started up outside my classroom, and I took two deep breaths.

“Good morning, Mr. Vilson.”

The kids came in and I had to hold my breath for a minute. I wrote my objective and “Do Now” on the board as the kids went to their lockers. I delayed my good morning salute for a longer while than I’m used to. Just before I finished writing up the Do Now on my paper, the Pledge of Allegiance from one of our children on the loudspeaker, the daily ritual:

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty …”

No, you’re not indivisible. You’re not ‘with liberty and justice for all.’  Fuck this.

My face turned elsewhere, hands tucked in my pockets while the pledge took 20 seconds to finish. As I finished writing the Do Now, I had a split second of vulnerability.

“Today, ladies and gentlemen, you’ll notice that there’s an objective and a Do Now in front of you, but I need to say this: if anyone wants to talk about what happened last night, whether now or one-on-one, I’m available to do this.” They didn’t seem to understand. “After last night’s lack of indictment of Darren Wilson and the murder of Michael Brown, maybe you have something to say or get off your chest, and if so, I’ve dedicated this time right now for you to say your piece.”

With that, I opened the floor with little moderation from me. Students asked what happened, and I presented what facts I knew.  Students felt angered and hurt by the typical timeline of things: cop shoots child of color and the cop gets away with it. One student asked for my personal opinion, and I couldn’t help but tell them as carefully as I could how outraged I was, and why it matters that I would do this.

They’re so used to their lives not mattering in the eyes of authorities.

I won’t mention much more about this early morning conversation, but after 20 minutes, my eighth graders made me away that they are way more conscious of America’s ills than people give them credit for. I did it again in the afternoon with my English co-teacher and that also felt positive. By the time I saw my third set of kids, though, I had already felt a full range of emotions, many of them helpless. Thus, I didn’t get around to it.

Many people have no idea what it’s like having to show strength in the darkest of times, to feel complicit in this American hypocrisy we call the “dream,” to call for hope when it can feel like bullshit. It’s easy to speak to Common Core, ed-tech, anti-testing, or whatever the niche issue is, but America needs to continue confronting the ways in which we dehumanize the very children we seek to teach, regardless of where we land on the edu-wonk spectrum. So many of us are so insulated from these incidents because we’ve never had to look at someone in the fact and tell them that the system they’ve been asked to trust doesn’t trust them when they look old enough.

But the glisten in my students’ eyes gives me hope. Maybe they’ll do better than we do.

photo c/o