Monday, January 30, 2017

70 days to find a hiding place

The day after the election, one of my students said to me, “I have approximately 70 days, Mrs. Stoker, to find a hiding place.”  I instantly had a pit in my stomach.  “Why?” I asked cautiously. “Because I’m black and the KKK are celebrating today,” his tone was flat, yet his eyes were indicating fear and pain.

As a 20+ year veteran teacher, no college class or professional development opportunity had prepared me for how to react and respond to that statement from my student.  Yes, I had taken an excellent grad course on Race, Gender, and Social Class in the Secondary Classroom, BUT we didn’t discuss how educators might respond to points like the one my student shared with me.  

How did I react and respond?  Within nanoseconds, internally my heart was breaking for my student. As aforementioned, I had a pit in my stomach.  In my mind, I had flashes of horrible hate crimes that have happened both past and present in our country. I had visions of somehow protecting this student as if my white privilege was some superficial superhero cape--that image in itself sickened me for several reasons.

I initially reacted with an external sigh and nod of compassion. I responded by saying, "It makes me so sad that you are thinking that thought.  And I understand why you would say that statement.  And it’s 2016, and it makes me sick that we are still dealing with racism.”  My student and I then held silence--searching for what to say next.

Reflecting on the conversation with my student, I think:  We should have been discussing college essay topics.  We should have been discussing our school newspaper stories because my student is a co-editor of the paper.  We should have been discussing how my student performed in his indoor track meet.  We should have been discussing his latest spoken word poem he wrote because he is a national competitor. And instead we were discussing his safety because of the color of his beautiful skin.  For those of you who know me, you know I teach in a small New England town.  Some of you may conclude, really what does my student have to be scared of attending a small New England high school?  Well let me share, racism exists everywhere--and until we discuss the complexities of this social construct of discrimination...until we unlearn what our family, friends, society and media have taught us about the fears about race--my student will remain scared.  And I cannot accept a student who is scared to exist, so I need to write. I need to share what incredible human beings my students are...