I’m a pre-kindergarten teacher at a public elementary school. When people find this out, they typically react with some variation of, “Oh what a cute age,that must be so fun!” It is fun, and tiring, and humbling, and at times heartbreaking. My classroom reflects the neighborhood I work in—ethnically and linguistically diverse. There is a common thread that binds the majority of students, however, and that is that the majority of them live in poverty. I’ve been working in the same neighborhood, at various different schools since 2007. And I can tell you that despite the reputation of the area, the families I’ve worked with over the years have a strong sense of community, pride, and dedication to their children’s education and well-being.
Throughout my career, I’ve collaborated with families from all walks of lives, with the common goal of ensuring that their child’s academic, social, and emotional needs are adequately met while they are in my care. It’s because of this, I think, that I’ve come to look upon every child I meet as an extension of my own family. Therefore, it’s hard for me to watch the current images coming out of Palestine, Iraq, Detroit, and Ferguson without grieving for the families and children who are impacted by these events.
Years before Trayvon Martin was gunned down in his own neighborhood, an incident occurred at my school that, once again, left me pondering the issues surrounding race, perception, and the realities that form when deeply held attitudes and beliefs about a particular community manifest in prejudicial ways.
That year, I had an African-American student in my class by the name of Melody*. Melody’s mom worked two jobs in order to support her four children, and because of her schedule, Melody’s older brother Thomas had the responsibility of taking her to and from preschool. Thomas went above and beyond his duties as a sibling. Not only did he get her to class on time every morning (despite the 2-mile walk between their house and the school), he also made a routine of staying with Melody a few minutes every morning to ensure that she was settled in. He often checked in with me or my aide, to ask about Melody’s progress, and ways he could help her at home. One particularly cold morning, Melody began crying when she realized she’d forgotten her jacket at home. I called Thomas, and he walked all the way back to school to bring it to her. That morning, as he knelt down to wipe her nose, he told me of how he was hoping to enroll in community college. He was nervous about the costs, and how he’d transition back into the school routine. It’d been two years since he’d graduated from high school. After that, my aide and I regularly chatted with him about his enrollment progress, financial aide options, and his future plans. My aide developed a fondness of him because he was the same age as her youngest son, and in her words, had “the same gentle personality.”
Later in the school year, security policies at the school changed, and all visitors were required to sign-in the office before entering campus. All gates, including the one that lead straight to our preschool door, were to remain locked. That’s when the trouble began. At first, I was unaware of it, but now looking back I can see that the tension slowly escalated over time. Apparently, some of the office staff had issues with Thomas. They perceived him as openly rude and hostile.
Okay, let me stop right here and explain something. I’ve worked with many office staff members over the years, and the majority of my interactions have been pleasant. There are secretaries, office managers, and administrators who maintain a level of professionalism and compassion that is to be commended. And there are those who do not. I am not saying that all staff in the office that year were unapproachable, but there were definitely a handful that consistently had a visible chip on their shoulder. And when I say chip, I mean chunk. I had witnessed many of their interactions with parents, students AND other staff that were questionable. When a school culture reflects the respect and dignity that all of us wish to be treated with, it’s largely reciprocated by the families and students we serve. We’ve all seen it in action.
That said, I did not witness the interactions between Thomas and the office staff, I only know that one Monday morning, he came into our classroom visibly upset. “That lady is SO RUDE!” he said, shaking his head. When I asked about it, he just shook his head as if to say, “forget about it.”
The next day, Thomas and a friend of his arrived at the office together to pick up Melody. According to some staff, this is what transpired: Thomas walked past the sign-in book, nodded to office staff, at which point a secretary told him to come back and sign-in. He kept walking. They called to him again. He exited the door and walked straight toward my classroom, where I was busy lining up my students for dismissal. They perceived his behavior as a threat. I remember hearing raised voices outside the door, and instinctively began moving the students toward the back of the classroom. My aide stayed with them while I went to see what all the commotion was about. When I peeked my head out the door, my heart sank. There was Thomas, arguing with several staff members, saying something to the effect of, “Why should I respect you when it’s CLEAR you don’t respect me.” His friend looked on nervously. “Stop yelling!” a staff member yelled. Just then I saw a police car roll into the parking lot. Then another. Then another. I fought back tears as I asked an administrator how everything had escalated so quickly. “He’s been a problem for a while. Always has attitude and is disrespectful. He won’t be allowed to come on campus anymore.”
As a crowd of parents gathered and police escorted Thomas and his friend out the gate, he turned to me, “Sorry, ma’am. I’ll send someone for Melody.”
One of the police officers pulled me aside and asked “You know this guy?” I struggled to keep my voice composed. ” I do. I want you to know, that this young man has always been a perfect gentleman in our classroom, and an attentive sibling to his sister.” He just nodded.
They did not end up arresting Thomas that day. I heard later that an officer, who was also African-American, vouched for him as well. Apparently he had gotten to know Thomas well during frequent trips to the neighborhood. He must have seen the side of Thomas that my aide and I saw. Unfortunately, because Thomas was barred from returning to the campus, no one was available to bring Melody to school, so she stopped coming. A few weeks later, I took a small bag of school readiness supplies over to the house, where I was received by Melody, her siblings, and mom, who was in between shifts.Thomas was there too, and we chatted for a while, mostly about Melody. We didn’t mention the incident.
The year ended, and since then I have not seen Melody or her family. But I often think of Thomas and hope he has managed to stay in school and steer clear of misfortune. He is not the only one that stays with me. The stories of countless students, parents, siblings, and grandparents weigh heavy in my heart. Sometimes it all builds up and I find myself crying for all of them.
Like the time when I heard recordings of Trayvon’s last pleas. Or watched the grainy video of Eric Garner as he cried out, “I can’t breathe!” Or when I opened a link to the image of Michael Brown’s lifeless body in the street, uncovered, unarmed.
It makes me sick to hear people try and justify these deaths based on their perceptions of who these men were, or weren’t.
They were brothers. They were fathers. They were sons.
And I’d like to think that WE are human enough to see that, and take action against a tide of ugliness that is sweeping our nation.
*names have been changed