The moment I had been dreading happened.
Student names started popping up on my screen waiting to be admitted into this morning’s first Zoom meeting.
What was I going to say to them?
Yesterday in Washington, DC, thousands of Trump supporters charged into the Capitol Building at his urging in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying his Presidential defeat.
What would I tell my middle schoolers?
What COULD I say?
We can’t offer you equitable resources. We can’t stop judging you with biased standardized tests. We can’t desegregate your schools. We can’t protect you from gun violence. We can’t even give you in-person classes because of a global pandemic the government has given up even trying to control!
And now I’m supposed to say that even the semblance of our democracy is up for grabs?
I started clicking on their names.
I only had a few moments before I had to speak.
I cleared my throat and began welcoming them, one-by-one as always.
And then it was time.
I stared at all these empty black boxes, and began.
“We’ve got to talk about yesterday,” I said.
“Not yesterday in class. That was fine. Everyone did an outstanding job on yesterday’s assignment.
“We have to talk about what happened yesterday in Washington, DC. Does anyone know what that was?”
And I waited.
Eventually I saw a few messages that individuals had their hands raised.
A few kids said that people had charged the Capitol. But that they didn’t know why.
So I explained it to them.
I told them how Trump was refusing to accept the results of the election. That he had lost, but continued to challenge it in the courts. Both Republican and Democratic judges had turned him down saying that he had no proof. So Trump spoke outside of the White House yesterday telling his followers to march on the Capitol, which they did.
At this point I noticed something strange on my screen.
The rows of empty boxes had turned into windows. No more memes or messages or generic names. Most of my kids had turned on their cameras and were meeting my eyes – in some cases – for the first time.
So that’s what Kelsey looks like, I thought. Wow! Marquis is really built. Is that little kid in the grey hoodie really Caulin?
I got flustered and stopped talking, but the students took up the narrative for me.
Some of them mentioned watching videos on-line of the riot. They saw a guy with horns in the President’s chair?
“No, I said. “That was the Vice-President’s chair in the Senate.”
“Wasn’t there someone at someone’s desk?”
“Yes, that was Nancy Pelosi’s desk,” I said. “A rioter broke into her office and put his feet up. She’s the Speaker of the House.”
And so it went on for a few minutes. They brought up things they had seen and I either clarified or supported them.
As a whole, they were wealthy in details but poor in meaning.
Most of the white kids seemed to be taking it ironically. The black and brown kids were more quiet and subdued.
A white boy wrote in the chat that it was “Civil War 2: electric bugaloo.”
I said, “Yes, you’ve hit on an important point. Some of these folks may have been trying to start a new Civil War.”
I tried to put the event in historical context.
I told them how nothing like this had ever happened in my lifetime. That the last time people broke into the Capitol Building like this was during the War of 1812 when the British tried to force the US to become a colony again. However, that was a foreign power invading our country. Wednesday was our own citizens seeking to overturn the results of an election, trying to overwrite the will of the people.
That’s when the first black student spoke up.
“Mr. Singer, why were they waving Confederate flags?”
“Yes! That’s true, Jamal. Many of them DID have Confederate flags and that’s really important.”
Before I could say more I got a series of rapid-fire questions from the same group who had been silent up to this point.
“Why didn’t the police stop them?”
“Why’d they steal stuff? I saw some guy walking away with a podium.”
“Why they so mad?”
I smiled and said that these were all excellent questions.
I asked if any of them knew who George Floyd was.
No one responded.
I told them he was a black guy who was murdered by police when an officer knelt on his neck.
After that happened, there were protests by Black Lives Matter activists and others in several cities including Pittsburgh. The police showed up in riot gear. As these protestors demonstrated almost entirely peacefully – certainly more peacefully than what we saw in DC yesterday – more than 14,000 people were arrested.
“How many people do you think were arrested yesterday?” I asked.
“Didn’t someone die?”
“Yes, a woman was shot in the Capitol and three others died of medical emergencies. How many people were arrested?”
“None,” said a student of color who hadn’t participated before.
“Why none?” I asked.
“Because they was white.”
I told him that he right and wrong. Out of thousands of rioters who broke into the Capitol, thirteen people were arrested. And the reason there were only 13 was because they were white.
I told them that this whole affair needed to be investigated. That we needed to know how and why the police responded the way they did. That we needed to hold the rioters accountable. That we needed to make sure those who instigated this violence were made to pay for it, too.
“Is Trump still President?” Someone asked.
“Yes,” I said. “For about two more weeks. But there are a lot of people who think he should have to step down sooner.”
So we talked about how he could be removed from office. We talked about impeachment and the 25th Amendment. We even talked about how Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook – how he couldn’t post or tweet but still could send a nuclear missile anywhere he wanted.
And then it quieted down.
I asked them if there was anything more they wanted to know or if there was anything else they wanted to say.
They were still.
A few cameras clicked off.
I told them that I was there if anyone needed anything, that their teachers were here if they were feeling anything and wanted someone to talk to.
And then that was it.
I made one of the most abrupt and inelegant transitions in my career and we returned to our normally scheduled lesson.
Did it help any?
I don’t know, but I told them what I could. I told them the truth as I saw it.
There was a time when I would have been more reticent about it.
But the day after domestic terrorists try to steal our system of government isn’t the time to hold back.
As a teacher, sometimes I feel so helpless.
There’s so much I’d like to do for my students.
I want them to get the resources they need. I want to stop the unfair testing, integrate their schools, keep them safe from gun violence and control Covid-19 so we can return to the classroom.
I want to live in a country where majority rule is cherished and protected, where no one thinks the collective will should be trumped by white privilege.
But when all those things are out of reach, I still have one thing left to give.
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