Two men in uniform. One with visible hands raised in an effort to avoid any “misunderstandings”, and the other literally holding the other’s life at the end of the chamber in his gun. One clearly serving his country and one perpetuating the stereotype so many hold about law enforcement officers. As the daughter of a retired Colonel in the Air Force, where literally every single uncle on both sides of my family, as well as a brother and husband, have served in the military, this one affected me on a deeper level. Maybe it was the uniform, or maybe it was how young the military man looked, or maybe I was just thinking about my own son completely complying with a command from an “officer of the law”, I can still feel tears in my eyes. I imagine the feeling of pepper spray probably felt minor compared to the combination of rage and forced calm this man felt inside as he feared for his life.
As a teacher, I try to find words to explain yet another incident of police brutality to a questioning student. “What could he possibly have done differently Ms. Lamons?” I shake my head and try to come up with something to make my student understand that complying with an officer’s request does not always mean they might not still be another victim. “So why even bother?” I literally had to pray as I saw my son’s face in the worried look of my student’s face. While still in kindergarten, I know he will inevitably have similar questions when he grows up. My son is extremely tall and stocky. My son is also a Black male who happens to be autistic. I looked at my student and saw exactly what I see in my own son. He is someone’s child, someone full of potential, innocence, and someone who can make a positive mark in the world if only given a chance to be seen as more than what many in America seem to fear the most.
As an educator, we are taught to see the good and infinite potential in everyone, and more often than not, it turns out to be one of the things that make us want to continue in this work. That being said, I completely understand and empathize with my Black and Brown students who have a justifiable fear of the police. What can I do to teach them the same “don’t judge a book by its cover”, or in this case, by their badge mentality when they watch the same news that shakes me every day? How do I teach them that they must overcome stereotypes that often hinder teachers from getting to know the person that lies behind the ethnicity, culture, religion, or gender they identify with? Healthy fear is sometimes the best emotion, especially when our kids are taught that their only priority is to “make it home”. As a teacher, I am emotionally drained in my efforts to calm the continually turbulent waters of uncertainty in this world.
As a Black Educator, I find that it is more draining to have to create ways to communicate empathy while trying not to show how much we fear for their lives after they leave our classrooms. We pray for their survival, while also understanding that our own lives might be in danger due to the same inequities of a system that only sees the skin color of those who “fit the description”. The status of student or teacher is meaningless to those who cannot see past assumed “danger”. It seems that there is a never-ending current of unrest that causes fear in us all.
“I hate cops.” I looked my student directly in the eye as I took a deep breath and struggled to find a teachable moment. “‘Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in this world, but has not solved one yet.’ Maya Angelou said this.” I could tell he was contemplating his next words as well. “So do you expect me to like them?” I again thought carefully about my words. “All I expect is for you to come home.” He looked at me with the same innocent and inquisitive look my son gives me when my words have finally sunk in and nodded slowly. “I’ll try Ms. Lamons. I’ll try.” While never easy, conversations like these are important, not only to help establish a rapport with students but to reinforce the “talk” every Black parent must have with their children. It is imperative that educators continue to look for spaces to insert life lessons, understanding that one statement has the ability to resonate with a student and potentially be the advice that saves their life.
So what are the solutions to this problem that is creating a greater divide between those who swear to “protect and serve” and those who are the victims of those who clearly have forgotten that oath? Focus on weeding out the “bad apples”? Continue to video and show the world, praying we do not witness something that will live on in our nightmares? As in education, the only possible solution is not to endlessly put out the “hot spots” of inequities, but to find the source of the raging fire that is burning the little trust people have in the failing system of policing. We need a complete reorganization of the way policing is done in America. In the same way, people are now finally looking closely at the problems within the state of education in America, systemic change is the only solution. The failing trust in the system of policing is mirrored by the failing trust in education. This pandemic has highlighted inequities in education that are much more than the achievement gap. Technology, Facility, Curriculum Resources, Staffing, Transportation, and Food Inequity are only a few of the issues plaguing the system of education in America. Money is not the solution to eliminate issues in either system. It will take a complete overhaul of each system to find the root of inequity, which will cause America to take a deep look inside itself.
As I think about how I felt when I saw these two men in uniform, I think about how much more power one held over the other. These two men wore uniforms that both speak to an assumed respect that, outside of this incident, both men might have justifiably received. No matter how much teachers try to break down these barriers, we have to acknowledge that our students may also look at our “teacher uniform” and feel the same sense of a “power structure” in our classrooms.
The teacher-student dynamic can be extremely influential in how kids respond to authority figures both in and out of the classroom walls. As teachers, we are the authority in the classroom, and we also have the power to shape lives for the better. So what do educators do to open the lines of communication so that we are able to become a teacher that has a lasting, positive influence on a student’s life? We have to check our own stereotypes and biases as much as we want the students to do for us in return. We have to create safe spaces for students to seek us out as their trusted adults. We have to develop the courage to delve into conversations that are so necessary to create relationships. It is about learning about more than just the curriculum we teach, but the life that is happening around us.
We have to do our part to help to re-shape the “system” of education in America. We have to strive to be the teacher who develops a relationship with a student no one else might be able to reach. One teacher, one student, one moment, one life. It may begin as simply as one conversation about two men in uniform.