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Lori Ungemah Headshot

An Open Letter to the Teachers of Trayvon Martin

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When I first learned of the tragedy that happened on February 26, in Sanford, Florida, when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman and the catalog of unfathomable events that have unraveled since then, I was shocked, hurt, and felt an ache in my chest cavity as a mother. Even though my son is a toddler, I was stunned into paralysis when I heard the voice of that young man pleading to the night for someone to come to his rescue in the 911 call. That's somebody's baby boy, I kept thinking. Somebody's child.

And then I started to think of his death as a teacher, and I thought of Trayvon's teachers in Florida. I wanted to tell them I am sorry for their loss, too, and for the dark waters they are navigating right now as they lead their students -- Trayvon's friends, acquaintances, and even those who had never spoken a word to him -- though the throes of grief that hit teenagers with such incredible force.

It made me realize that I am lucky never to have lost a student to violence. I have had students cut, shot, hurt in domestic violence from family, friends, and strangers. I have watched students lose family, friends, and acquaintances to murder, but I have never had a student killed. It is overwhelmingly sad and wrong that I am shocked by this -- that the students I teach are so likely to die a violent death at a young age that I am surprised I haven't attended one of their funerals. Even writing this makes me nervous, as if I will jinx them into a horrible fate.

But all teachers who work with large populations of young men (and women) of color know this is a fact. We watch our students navigate the delicate balance of school and life that even those with the greatest resilience would find challenging and we marvel at how much they overcome -- how they can still see hope in what appears to be a hopeless situation. We watch them try, and we watch them succeed. We find such joy in those successes, as if we are all proving the world wrong when our students get into college, pass standardized tests, read a book and love it, write a beautiful poem, come to school every day on time, graduate, and believe in themselves and their abilities to be awesome. There are so many victories that are never celebrated outwardly, but they are there.

I wonder about Trayvon's victories.

I think about teaching all the Trayvon Martins -- the young men of color who have a hit on them even without having done a thing. I have read many articles written in the past week on the explicit rules black parents teach their children on how to live, survive, and make it through life in this racist world. These rules aren't new to me; I have heard them from my students and from my coworkers in the teachers' lounge for years, but I have thought more about these rules this week than in my entire 37 years of life combined. I have thought of the terrifying responsibility that parents of children of color must feel, and I have wondered how I, as someone who has spent my career working with mostly black and Hispanic students, can help teach these rules. What is my role?

Because these parents need back up. Plain and simple. And we see their children daily. We are their back up.

I think the best I can do, as a teacher, is to create an English classroom where students can talk openly about race, power structures, and life. I can select texts (fiction and non-fiction) that will allow students to see themselves and the issues that are relevant to them, their lives, and their communities when they read. I can create assignments that will allow them to write, think, and talk about personal experiences and these issues in class. I can bring in films, documentaries, music, images, and history that allows them to see the multi-layered complexities of race in America and around the world. I can allow them to bring in their favorite resources to class so that they can teach me and each other. I can create a curriculum that is truly culturally relevant and teach them to employ critical literacy skills so that they not only know the rules their parents are teaching them at home, but they can understand -- on a deeper level -- the structures and culture that makes these rules necessary. I can teach them to think critically and I can encourage them to act, to take their knowledge beyond the classroom and into their communities. I can be their advocate.

Maybe more importantly, I can be honest. As a white woman, there is no sense in lying to them, telling them that white America isn't as bad as they think it is, pacifying their fears with stories of nice white people. When students ask me, as a white Southerner, if my family was in the KKK, I honestly tell them, "No, but I knew they met Wednesday nights at -- Lake and you certainly didn't go skinny dipping then!" When they ask me why white people hate black people, I tell them I don't think hate is the first emotion felt, I think it's fear -- white people are scared of black people, and therefore they don't like them. "Why are they scared?" they ask me. And then we talk about media, the news, and the historical portrayal of black folks for hundreds of years. When they ask me if I am afraid of black people, I tell them yes.

And then I explain to them that although I have spent my entire professional life as the only white person in the room for 40+ hours a week, and although I have never had an altercation with a person of color, although I have black folks in my family and biracial nieces and nephews, and how I truly love and respect them as my students, but when I am walking home alone at night and a black man walks towards me on an empty street, my first feeling is still fear. I still walk fast, cross the street, or grab my purse. And then I feel like shit, because after that first visceral response I realize this is just probably some guy walking home from work, a friend's house, or going to get milk for his baby, and I judged him in that fraction of a second. And my judgment was based on a racism that is so deeply ingrained in my being that sometimes I can't control it. I always want to cross the street again, apologize to this person, tell him the famous "I'm not really a racist!" claim, explain to him that I feel like shit for having judged him, but it's futile. It's too late. He's already up the block and probably shaking his head at my action, and I'm down the block and feeling horrible. I will lay awake and think about that moment that night and strategize how to make myself a better person. I do possess the ability to reflect on my actions and see them for what they are -- however ugly that is -- but I still act in a way that's not okay to me. I am working on changing that, and I'm getting better at it, but I'm still, deep down, scared.

How inconceivably messed up is that, considering I have taught hundreds of young black men in my career? I tell them it makes me sad, that I feel ashamed, and that I think of stuff like this a lot.

They tell me similar stories about their fear and therefore hatred of white people, with disclaimers like, "Miss, you're cool, but most white people..." They tell me they would hate me if they didn't know me. They tell me what they would really think of me, were I not their teacher, and it's chilling. But I get it. I do. I can see how they would see me, and they can be honest with me, because I am honest with them. And we have difficult talks, and what we have to say about each other isn't sunshine and unicorns, but I think we trust each other more in the end because those words are exchanged. Maybe it makes a fraction of a difference.

That's all we can do as teachers, right? Provide a space for honest dialogue amid curricula that students can relate to, contribute to, and invest in as learners and as citizens of this messed up world. When I heard on the radio that some schools in Miami were asking teachers not to talk about Trayvon Martin's death, I hoped that those teachers were politely agreeing with the administration and then closing their classroom doors and doing the right thing and letting the kids talk and engage in the critical conversations that need to happen. I'm sure many are.

And I hope teachers of white kids are talking about this, too. Everyone has a responsibility here. Everyone is in. This is our country and these are our children. George Zimmerman is someone's child and he was the student of many teachers. What was he taught? What were his rules? Who challenged him to think of a different world? To talk about his feelings? To question them? We are as responsible for him as we are for Trayvon.

I know these ideas aren't a panacea, but I think they are a start.