If I'm Good the Police Will Leave Me Alone


I'm pretty sure I did everything wrong about teaching English this semester except listening to my students and helping them learn how to formulate their ideas more clearly and with more depth. I really love these conversations with young people who are learning to write better. Critical thinking isn't something you're necessarily born knowing how to do, especially in an immediate gratification salad bar of a society. Someone has to care enough to engage you in discussions that involve options beyond the kind you find on a multiple choice test. Okay, so you think that, but why? What would you do if someone asked you to defend your idea with facts and solid rationale? How will you respond when someone disagrees with you? You might not be able to immediately form responses to these questions . You might need some practice. You have to go a little deeper here.

When they're lost in formulating a good argument I tell them to go to the ultimate: asking for a raise. Money is a motivator and as close to a universal concern as I can get in this environment besides "we're all going to die", and this is not a philosophy course. How do you effectively justify not just your need for more cash from an employer, but how much you deserve it? This tends to wake them up a little.

I pulled a particular really smart but scattered student aside one day so we could talk more about his paper topic. He had the look that many of mine do--scattered not just from a state of being, but from life, which is to say he's managing too much of it and trying to go to school at the same time. He told me, after some talk about a safe topic that he didn't care about, that he really wanted to argue his belief that as an African-American teenager he was ultimately responsible for the outcomes of any interactions he had with police. His job was to be respectful, calm, and obedient if approached by law enforcement, and things would turn out in his favor. He wouldn't be arrested, especially wrongfully, or, God forbid, injured or killed like so many of his peers he has seen lately in the media. He would keep his head down. He would not act up. He would survive.

He shared a time he and some friends had been walking around in a nearby college town in the early morning hours. They were doing nothing and had nothing with them, he said, that would cause any trouble. Police had approached them anyway, asking why they were there and where they were headed. His friend who mouthed off made it worse for all of them. It made B nervous. He wished that his friend would shut his mouth. B kept quiet through the whole thing, and eventually they were allowed to move along. He liked to think that his behavior had made things better, that if his friend had been alone it would have turned bad. Using his head had worked so far, and he had to believe that this would continue.

I told him that if he could find some data to back it up, he had a valid argument for this particular assignment, and at the very least he could try. He needed to talk to people, and read commentary about this big, big issue carefully. He needed statistics about law enforcement interactions and crime rates, race and violent encounters incarceration percentages and cause and effect. We talked about qualitative research and how it's tough to argue a point that is based solely in feelings and anecdotal evidence, at least in an academic setting. This wasn't friends sitting around hashing over a belief; this was an argumentative research assignment.

I told him that I very much wanted his argument to be true, but our wishes weren't the point in this context. His job was to scan facts that might make it difficult to prove in addition to an easy case, because that is what you have to do when you're formulating a solid argument. It's almost more important to prepare for the counter-argument, to have a response prepared when someone comes for your idea and tells you you're wrong, as they almost certainly will, especially on a charged topic.

As I listened to him my heart broke while my womp-womp teacher mouth talked arguments and claims, counter-arguments and rebuttals. I thought I knew already what he'd find out, but it wasn't my job to decide that or influence him or discourage him from seeking answers. Sometimes my job is to hate a truth and witness it anyway, to balance intellect and emotion. Critical thinking, I guess.

But the not-so-secret is that the classroom ultimately teaches me hardest, and this was a tough one. I had walked the streets he talked about in that town he referenced, and the people I was told to fear were people who looked like my student, not the police, unless I was told to fear them catching me driving my car from a bar if I'd been drinking. I was supposed to fear the police doing their jobs, if I were legitimately breaking the law. This is an entirely opposite situation from B's. This is a different kind of life. This is the privilege people often claim isn't real, because it's uncomfortable. Because it is real.

A week or so passed before we talked about B's paper again, a week I spent watching the news and reading hashtag threads from a different perspective. I took a picture of a covertly racist billboard about prison, of all things, on a weekend trip to Tennessee. I walked by a #policelivesmatter bumper sticker and sighed. I favorited tweets that supported his claim. I spent a day in Baltimore and watched protests from a distance on the news. I did not feel optimistic for his research. I told myself it was important for him to process through this.

When we sat back at the same table, we brought up nearly simultaneously that the news was making his point more difficult to prove. We talked about Freddie Gray, who had just died in Baltimore after an attack by police. We discussed Walter Scott, who had been shot in the back earlier in the month in South Carolina while running from police. I told him to consider the concept of kairos that we'd discussed in class, that timing--in a day, a relationship, a culture--has an impact on how your argument is received. What a time and place we were living in for this discussion, and also just for living. B said he was a little discouraged and I told him I was too, honestly.

"I'm starting to think that my ideas about this might not be so true, Professor."

I wasn't told in graduate school that sometimes, sitting across from a student, I would want to tear the world I barely understood myself apart with my bare hands. I never foresaw wishing for the ability to reach back with an eraser through hundreds of years of institutionalized hatred and violence, and now through a mass of rhetoric and acquittals, wiping away garbage in search of some basic decency and promise for the many--many, many--kids who cross my path, so many of them just trying to get an education they're told will help them on to better things, who are going to the movies, who are working to pay their cell phone bill and probably part of the rent and for their tuition and books too while they're taking too many credits at a community college for the load they carry outside.

I wasn't taught but have gained from experience a wish to want to be more to them than a representative of a group of people who will never let them up for air, while knowing I can only do my part to be better than they have experienced from others. I want to be the opposite of patronizing or contrived do-gooding, and obviously in stark contrast to any shaming and erasing they have experienced. I want to be a person who listens and guides, who hears their experiences and doesn't respond until they are finished speaking. I want to be a person who doesn't babble out words when none will do.

I told B that I was inclined to believe that he was correct, that he was learning an important, difficult truth, that our research often proves us wrong more than it confirms what we go in believing. I asked him if he felt okay about going back to his plan b, discussing the positive impact he believed that body cameras and other information-gathering equipment could and did have on the treatment of people of all colors by law enforcement officers. He said he felt like that would be more useful at this point, and he'd move on with it. We were both sorry he had to. 

Topics aside, B is a talented writer who knows a little bit more than he did in January about how to get a point across, even if--hopefully especially if--he doesn't like what he sees or learns. He dropped his folder off right on time on the last day, a camera around his neck, fresh from shooting a friend's high school graduation. He is a resolute guy with some solid plans for the summer, who knows what to take in the fall. He has my e-mail address and a phone number if he needs a letter of recommendation, because I told him I left college with exactly zero of them and that's a terrible idea. I told him I'd write him one for anything, and that it would all be true. 

He said that he'd been thinking, and he still considers himself responsible for his own behavior, but he is more aware now that it might not make the difference he'd like. He still likes to think that doing what he knows is right will up his chances of a positive outcome if he has to deal with police, which he does not want to do at all, you know? Who does? He thanked me for listening to him, and for being cool, and I did not cry until he left.

I admire this guy so much. I feel so fortunate that he crossed my path. I want him, down to my core, to be successful, and to be safe. 

I get to do this job. Kairos in this case, in my life as a teacher and a person who absorbs a lot of news and has been feeling quite helpless about it all, means I got to sit in a classroom with a young black man before and after he critically scanned the environment,  coming to grips with the realization that the outcomes of a scary situation may be out of his control simply because of who he is and not what he does. I thought that I understood that before, but I really didn't. B's plans for the summer are more solid than mine. I'm still, quite honestly, thinking about what to do next.