I hardly ever blog. I teach full time, and this year has been more difficult than years past. There has been a huge increase in homeless students at my school, and it is taking a toll. But I felt that I needed to write this now. I have kept this story inside for a few years, and it needs to be told.
A few years ago, I was at a different school. It was more of a suburban area, but as we have seen in many areas, the crime and poverty is getting pushed out to suburb areas. This area has a lot of gang activity and many of my students have family members in gangs. Any one of my students could have been Mike Brown.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English, and since it that school is a K-8 school, all the teachers know all the students, often since from when they are in kindergarten, and I get to teach the same students two years in a row. I had a student, I’ll call him J., who had been at the school since Kinder. Every teacher he had loved him and really tried to work with him. He had many struggles in his life, absent father, family in gangs, etc. Behaviorally at school, he wasn’t always the best, but everyone worked so hard with him. In his 7th grade year, he did not want to do much work, as it is for most students in 7th grade. But I was able to work with him and he did learn and grow.
In his 8th grade year, I had a co-teaching situation with an awesome Special Educator who had been at that school a long time and also knew J. All throughout 7th and 8th, we encouraged him to NOT join a gang, stay in school, and let him know that he could do this. There were many times when he could have joined a gang, but chose not to. Then, we got a new principal.
In January of 2012, a new principal was placed at the school. Right away she seemed to have it out for J. Sure, he had been in trouble before, but up till this time he had never been suspended as much as he was when the new principal came to the school. It seemed like he was suspended more than he was at school. J. also had an IEP, but protocols were not followed, and he continued to get suspended. He wanted to be at school, but the principal made it so he wasn’t. He had lots of free time on his hands, and now started to see school as his enemy instead of his haven. Despite all of this, we enrolled J. in a good high school that offers classes in car mechanics. He was very excited about this opportunity.
Over a break, the principal’s car had its tires slashed. There were no cameras recording anything, and nobody was in the school except the principal, and maybe some office staff. She blamed this incident on J. She also knew people on the police force. So, the police went to his house, and they found a knife. Is it a crime to have a knife in your house??? How does that prove anything? J. was arrested and taken to juvie. 14 years old. Loved to skateboard and had dreams of graduating from high school, maybe going to college. All of that was wiped out with this one accusation. It’s no secret that once you are in the prison system, it is hard to break out of that. J. had everything stacked against him.
During this time, the principal also chose me to bully, and I ended up leaving that school. If it wasn’t for her, I would still be there. I loved those students and the community. I spoke with J. and then some of his friends, and found out he was in and out of Juvie. I think about him, and how he could have been in a mechanics program at high school.
All of my students really could be Mike Brown. Police interactions are not usually positive, and yes, kids are asked questions that white kids hanging out would not be asked. They are looked at with a high degree of suspicion. White kids are not. There are systemic injustices in this country and they need to be addressed and changed. I used to think we had come a long way since the Jim Crow era, but we really haven’t.
I love my students. They deserve every opportunity that any kid growing up has. They have a lot more stacked against them, and still, they are just kids. Normal kids. We cannot have people who happen to have varying shades of brown skin be afraid to walk down a neighborhood street. That’s not ok. Why should, boys especially, be afraid for their lives when they walk out their door?