Matty has a conversation in my novel How to Be Manly when he realizes that his best friend’s mother dreads him for reasons outside of his control. He calls his best friend Mike to invite him over and is surprised by the answer:
“My dad is here,” I said. “Come over for lunch after practice tomorrow.” That way my dad would know that I had friends. Maybe the three of us could go to the movies or watch a game instead of me always hanging out with Mike and his dad like we used to.
“I don’t think I can,” he said.
“Maybe tomorrow then.”
“I don’t think my mom would let me,” he said.
“How come she doesn’t like me?” I asked. I didn’t know it was going to come out like that. I always just took it for granted that Mike’s mom didn’t like me that much. I never thought about it before but now it just bothered me all of a sudden.
Mike didn’t say anything.
I don’t know how it feels, as my character does, to be dreaded because of the color of my skin. I don’t know how it feels to not even be given a chance to defend myself to someone who has come to a conclusion about my character based on who I am.
But I do know that when I worked at schools with a majority of black and Hispanic students, people often called me brave.
I do know that there are college graduates who choose to teach in schools with a majority of black and Hispanic students without bothering to get teaching credentials first. They aren’t interested in being teachers. They are interested in getting two years of so-called “urban education” work on their resumes to help them get other jobs. Those two years of flailing around with no knowledge of pedagogy in a classroom of black students supposedly proves something positive about the applicant to the future employer.
I do know that there is a whole genre of films about white teachers “saving” black students, in which audiences are supposed to admire the teacher for even daring to enter the room, let alone teaching anything. As though the teacher is Daniel laying down with the lions, showing her specialness by surviving such a dangerous environment.
I know that my years of teaching in so-called “urban” public schools were the most rewarding of my career. I know that the communities of students and families I met in those schools were a wonderful fit for me. I know that I quit for reasons that had nothing to do with the kids, and everything to do with the corrupted, unsustainable systems that seem to haunt these students wherever I found them.
The only conclusion I have for this post is that though I feel helpless as an observer of the chaos in Ferguson MO, there are things I can do to reduce violence in my own community. To begin with I can check my own assumptions. I can check my own perpetration of the dread of young black males that pervades in our culture.
I can state here that it wasn’t brave of me to teach in any school where I landed. It was a privilege.