On teaching and the murder of Alton Sterling

I don't talk about teaching these days because I'm not doing it right now. Thinking about it this morning, though. I miss it.

The first semester I taught English composition, I had a student propose "police brutality" for his final research topic. After we did the typical "That is far too broad. What is your claim? What is your focus? What do you really feel to be true that you can research and prove?" dance, he stated his premise that as a young African American man, if he and his peers remained polite and compliant, that they would escape physical harm at the hands of law enforcement officers.

This is the world where we live. This is what the kids I taught are thinking about, first of all. I didn't refute his proposal, because that is not my job, although in my flawed grown-up human mind, I wasn't at all confident that he'd find the research to support his claim, which is depressing as hell right off the top. I simply asked him to begin, because that is my job when I guide people in telling a researched story: to give them the tools to begin.

I wanted him to find something to support his claim. I can't tell you how much I did.

He returned to me for his meeting the following week, and told me that he had to change his topic. He told me he had found too many examples in a number of sources that contradicted his claim. He told me he wasn't so sure anymore that he was correct, never mind one isolated incident in high school in which his peers had acted out, per his report, and he had not, and it had ended better for him. He changed his topic to the effect of body cameras on police officers on the rate of violence between officers and civilians.

I have never before cried in a meeting with a student. I was a little embarrassed that I did, but those were my feelings on my face, and I think he deserved to see some tears and compassion and some baseline assistance in using his words from me. It is honestly the very least I can do for any of these kids, when I have their attention and their desire for a passing grade so they can move on. I told him that I was very sorry that he had found what he did, and that I wanted a better place for him where what he believed to be true was so.

A look at his necessary topic shift will show what he found in his research, without us having to go out and do it. His annotated bibliography is a record of our sad shared experience at this cultural moment, and more importantly, the shared experience of African American people who do not feel safe in their country. As a white person, I can't share that experience, even if, as a woman, I have my own version. It is not the same. The terror of black parents for their sons is to be honored and responded to better than it is and better than it has been, which is to say, at all. The hopelessness of young black men and women, who see their peers all over the country shot on whims is to be honored. It is not dismissible.

I'm tired of names that become hashtags because they were murdered. I'm tired of people having to prove the worth of their lives, and people having no chance to do so from underneath someone's boot or at the other end of their gun. I'm tired of lunatics like George Zimmerman and the Mother Emmanuel church murderer and the Texas cop who beat the young girl at the pool party and the men yesterday in Baton Rouge.

And let me say clearly and out loud that I am sorry for the murder of Alton Sterling. I would like to speak specifically to all black people who are grieving this loss today, like so many others, and who are processing the anger, fear, and despair, to name a few emotions, that must be repeatedly dealt with around violence and murder acted specifically upon people of color. If you are not black, I encourage you to listen to what they say, as they are able to say it, without layering your own reaction and your own experience onto it. This is, by far, the best teaching and, more importantly, learning tool I have. It isn't about me. It is around me, and of people I care about, and of the world I live in, but it is not specifically about me. I can concede many more important things-that is the bare minimum-but it appears it often bears repeating. 

I would like to give all kids like those who passed through my classrooms better, but all I had for awhile was a platform to help them find their voices. It's likely the best and most useful one I've ever had, and I should be looking for opportunities to do it from the outside, wherever I can find them, in the years I have left, in this time that I'm living that feels so insane, while at the same time allegedly more progressed than ever. I think it would benefit us all, particularly those of us who have lived in the privilege of relative safety at traffic stops, on curbs outside stores, riding our bikes, wherever, to do that, if we want to make the difference that so many of us always say that we want to make.