There was anger in the air.
You could almost taste it.
The children filing into the classroom were mumbling to each other, gesticulating violently, pointing fingers.
And out of all that jumbled noise – like a TV showing a scrambled channel – only one word came through clearly.
The bell rang its muffled cry – just another dissonant note lost in the chatter.
I held up my hands and began to quiet them.
But then stopped.
Exercises about vocabulary, analogies, sentence construction and figurative language waited patiently on the board. They’d have to wait until tomorrow.
There was something going on here more than just teenage drama. My middle school kids were shaken and upset. As a white teacher who presides over classes of mostly minority students, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the events in Baltimore would weigh heavily on their minds. They were on mine, too.
So I quieted my 8th graders with a question: “Are you talking about Baltimore?”
A collective shout of various disconnected assents.
“Who can tell me what’s happening there?” I asked.
They quieted and raised their hands.
We were back in school again.
They told me what they knew, which was surprisingly little. They knew people of color were rioting in Baltimore. They thought a black man had been shot.
I said, “He wasn’t shot. Does anyone know his name?”
No one did.
“Has anyone heard of Freddie Gray?” I asked.
None of them had. So I told them.
I told them that Gray was a 26-year-old black man in Baltimore who died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody. I told them he was arrested because he met an officer’s eye, got scared and ran. The police arrested him and found a knife on him.
I told them there was a cell phone video of Gray being arrested. He was being dragged to the police car screaming in pain. After about 30-45 minutes he was taken to the hospital. His spine was 80% severed from his neck. He had a bruised larynx and broken vertebrae. He eventually died from his injuries.
They wanted to see the video. At first I refused because I clung to some optimistic hope we might get back to my lesson plans. But one look at their eager faces and I gave in.
I have never heard them so silent. Never. They watched the video and an accompanying news report as if they were the about life and death. I guess they were.
Then we went around the room discussing what we’d seen and what it meant.
More than anything, I just let my kids talk.
You’d be amazed at what they had to say. Some highlights:
- It’s really hard to be a black person in America. Black people – especially boys – are being murdered by the police. They assume if you’re sagging your pants, you have a gun on you.
- White people can put their hair in cornrows and dress “ghetto” but when they change their hair back and put on different clothes, they’re still white. I can’t change my face. The police still look at me like I’m an animal and a criminal.
- Lot of boys I know sell drugs so they can support their mommas. It’s not for them. They want their mommas to have it easier. They do it out of respect for all their mommas have sacrificed to bring them up and feed them.
- There’s no such thing as race. It’s just a color. We’re all the same.
When it came to the riots, the class was sharply divided – and not on racial lines.
Some kids said that people rioting in Baltimore are being “trashy” and “ghetto.” They’re making black people look bad. “How does stealing the new Jordan’s help Freddie Gray?”
Others thought the violence was completely justified.
In fact, some of my girls were so angry they wanted to go to Baltimore and join the tumult. They were so mad, they wanted to ditch school and riot right here in Pennsylvania.
“This didn’t start with riots,” I told them. “It started with protests. Can someone tell me the difference?”
They calmed again and tried to answer the question.
We started to define both terms. We decide that a riot was chaos, unorganized and had no purpose. A protest was just the opposite – organized and purposeful.
The anger resurfaced.
“I don’t care, Mr. Singer!” a big girl in the back shouted. “They always be out to get us, and when it goes to court no one does nothing!”
I pointed in her direction and nodded. We talked about it. Many felt the same way. If you can’t trust the police and the courts, who can you trust?
I moved forward into the middle of the room.
“Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ Does anyone know what that means?”
We decoded it. We decided it meant that it might take a long time, but justice usually wins in the end.
I nodded. I asked them if Dr. King ever rioted. They said no. I asked them if Dr. King ever protested. They smiled and said yes.
We talked about the Civil Rights movement. We talked about how organized, peaceful protests won us many of the rights we have today. We talked about Mahatma Gandhi and how passive resistance won the country of India.
And then the talk changed. No more talk of riots.
We talked about protests – what they looked like today and how they worked.
“I’m going to go down Main Street and protest this Sunday,” another girl said with tears in her eyes. “I have the right to think my thoughts and no one can stop me thinking them.”
Others mumbled agreement and said they’d go with her.
I asked her what she’d do – just march back and forth. She didn’t know. I told her about die-ins – how people would just drop to the ground and stay there to represent the people being murdered.
The class took it from there. They planned to do a die-in. They’d do it at the exact time Freddie Gray died. They’d bring signs that said “Black Lives Matter.”
I asked the girl who originated the idea if she went to church. She said she did. I told her she might want to tell them what she was planning. She should tell her parents. Maybe they’d join her.
She beamed. Her grandfather is a retired police officer and she thought he’d come along. She said she’d talk with her pastor Saturday.
All this in the space of 45 minutes. By the time the bell rang again, they were literally marching and singing “Protest!” as they walked off to lunch.
We never got to the planned lesson, but I’m not sure that matters.
Did I overstep my bounds as teacher?
I don’t think so. Something had to be done. These kids were hot. They wanted to tear something apart. But after our discussion they had an outlet, a plan.
Will they go through with it? I don’t know.
Frankly, that wasn’t the point. In the classroom, I’m not an organizer. I’m a teacher.
I’ve lost too many kids to the streets. Drugs, violence, neglect, juvenile detention.
“Promise me something,” I said in the middle of our discussion.
“Mr. Singer, it looks like your going to start crying,” one of them said awed and frightened.
“Please. Whatever you do, be safe,” I said.
“If a cop asks you to do something, you do it. Don’t run. Don’t yell and scream.”
“But, Mr. Singer!”
“Honey,” I interrupted, “I’m not saying to give up fighting for your rights. But you have to live long enough to tell your story. Freddie Gray isn’t around to have his day in court. Neither is Trayvon, Michael or Eric. You know what I mean?”
Teachers can’t make anyone to do anything.
The only thing they can do is get you to think.
I did that. I just hope it’s enough.