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Lori Ungemah Headshot

Dear Trayvon

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Dear Trayvon,

I never knew you and I never will, but I feel like I knew you. From all I have read about the person you were before you were killed by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012, you sound like many of students I taught here in Brooklyn, New York. Your story could have been any of theirs -- from the hoodie to the Skittles, from the racial profiling to the wrong place/wrong time/wrong person evening that ended your life. I have heard similar stories many, many times. Sadly, it just repeats itself.

But I do want to say that I know you were unique, too. None of us will ever know all the tiny beautiful things about you: what was the first book you read and loved, your earliest memory, your best birthday, the outfit that made you feel on top of the world... those are lost now.

Teaching 11th grade -- the grade you were in -- was my favorite year of high school to teach. I felt that in 11th grade the young men I taught really came into themselves. The girls... well, you probably knew that those girls were full-grown women when they walked into high school in 9th grade (or at least they thought they were!), but the boys became young men in 11th grade and it was amazing to watch. They would enter my classroom in September full of swagger and attitude, but something would click in the spring semester and they would grow. They left our classroom in June with a sophistication and maturity that was new and powerful. I wonder if you were in the beginnings of this developmental metamorphosis when your life was cut short. It makes me sad that your potential as a young man will never be realized.

The Million Hoodie March here in New York City for you was the first protest rally that I had attended in ages -- maybe since college -- but I felt I had to go. I raced home from my job in Manhattan, picked up my kids from their school and daycare, grabbed hoodies for all of us, grabbed medical tape and a sharpie marker and wrote "Suspicious?" across layers of tape and taped it to the back of my kids' hoodies. The irony of their labeled hoodies was intentional: My kids are White -- wearing a hoodie for them will never make them "suspicious" -- not in the way you were stereotyped.

We met my co-worker Karla and her daughter Kennedy at Union Square. While Karla and I strained to hear what was being said, our kids stood on a fence around a flower bed fascinated by worms wiggling in the mulch. Their young, playful voices cut into the "No Justice, No Peace!" and "Whose streets? Our streets!" chants, punctuating our anger with innocence. I thought of you as a kid. Did you like to dig up worms? Did your mom freak out when you went to eat a snack with worm slime all over your hands like I do? Your mom and dad walked past us, surrounded by an entourage of cameras and people. I pulled my kids close, feeling guilt for having my kids alive while theirs was dead.

I told my kids we went to the rally because a grown up man had hurt a teenage boy and that was wrong. I told them that the man had White skin and the little boy had Brown skin. Alexandra, who was almost 5 at the time, was beginning to understand racial categories. I told them we were chanting, listening, and walking because we wanted to show that we thought what Zimmerman did to you was wrong. That night, when I put them to bed, Alexandra said to me, "Mommy, I hope that bad man gets in trouble for hurting that boy."

Now it is over a year later. That bad man did not get in trouble. Not even a little bit.

How do I explain that to her?

Through a strange twist of timing, I was with my same friend Karla, her family, plus an additional family when the verdict for the trial was delivered. We were camping in Swartswood State Park in New Jersey. The kids had gone to bed and the adults were sitting around the campfire. All day we had been without our phones (it's so hard even for us adults!), and Karla had just taken hers out and heard that a verdict had been reached, but we didn't know what that verdict was. We waited, waited, waited. We stared at the flames in the fire, the embers glowing, the logs of wood black on the outside with burning red cores... Not guilty.

Our hearts sank.

We talked for a bit and then retreated to our respective tents, defeated.

I laid there that night, on the hard ground, and listened to the rain pattering on our tent. I was sure your mother and father and family and others were weeping. I felt paralyzed by grief for you and your family, for our country and our justice system, for my students who, like you, could so easily suffer the same fate. I wished I was back in New York City to go protest somewhere, to go outside and scream my rage with people who felt similar rage, to go do something, but I was stuck in a tent in the woods in New Jersey. Unable to sleep, I thought of you.

The next day we woke up and started making copious amounts of coffee and bacon (two staples in our family life). The kids were digging in the dirt looking for worms yet again, filthy and happy and unburdened by the verdict. I watched them and this is what I saw:

Six kids, all of various shades of skin color. My Nico being the palest kid of all -- that poor boy is a translucent shade of white, his skin practically see-though so that the blood in his veins shines through as a bright blue color. Alexandra, my daughter, has the olive complexion of her Roma great grandmother with eyes that are black brown. Karla's daughters are two different shades of gorgeous, glowing brown -- one lighter, one darker, with super curly hair that hangs in twists to their shoulders when dry and down their backs when wet. The other couple on our camping adventure was biracial and had two light brown children -- a son and a daughter, with skin not much darker than Alexandra's when she's tan and heads of dark hair that curled in tight ringlets.

I watched these kids all morning with a different lens than the day before. Six kids playing together in the dirt, sharing scooters and tubes of squeezy applesauce, running wind sprints up and down a hill so many damn times I lost count, squabbling over turns, holding hands, laughing, screaming, and happy. I am sure that they recognized that they looked different from each other, I thought, but it didn't affect their immediate friendship or how they treated each other. Why can't it stay like this? Can it stay like this? What can we do to make it stay like this? I wondered.

I have no easy answers and no quick fix.

Alexandra went through a weird racist phase this past year that terrified my husband and me. Last November, after Hurricane Sandy pulverized the New York City area, I had to work on a day when my kids had no school. I scrambled for childcare and my friend Amy's nanny, Shelly, graciously offered to watch my two kids in addition to Amy's two kids. As I explained the situation to Alexandra in the tub that night, she asked me, "Does Shelly have brown skin?" I was taken aback. "Yes, I said, she does. . . Remember, we met her on the street one time." Alexandra frowned and said, "I am scared of people with brown skin."

A couple of months later, we were flipping through a Time Life book about Barak Obama that I had bought after the 2008 election, and we came upon a photograph of his Kenyan grandmother. "I don't like her," Alexandra said out of nowhere. "Why?" I countered. "How do you know if you don't like her, you don't even know her?" She replied, matter-of-factly, "I don't like her because she has brown skin. She looks funny. I only like people with white skin."

Both of these conversations warranted long talks about how we judge people by their character, not their skin color. But I was FREAKING OUT. WTF? How could my 5-year-old daughter already be afraid and biased against people with brown skin? Where was she getting this? She was not getting this from home, we don't let her watch syndicated television (only a few PBS Kids shows and kid movies), but racism in society is EVERYWHERE and it was seeping into her little head ALREADY.

But she had had a breakthrough just this Friday, Trayvon.

As we packed to go camping, I showed her a photo on Facebook of my friend Karla's daughters snug in their tent. "Look guys!" I said to the kids. "Our friends are already there! See their tent!" (This was our first camping trip and I was trying to rally excitement.) Alexandra looked at my computer screen and a small frown crossed her face. "That's them?" she said, pointing at my computer. "Oh shit," I thought. Here comes another crazy racist statement -- I had secretly feared that she might say something during our trip. But her frown disappeared. "They're brown, Mommy." "Yep," I said. "They have brown skin." "Mommy," she ventured, "We can be friends with people with brown skin. It doesn't matter what color your skin is. What matters is your behavior," she explained, emphasis on the word behavior. "You can even marry someone with brown skin if you love them," she went on.

I exhaled. Finally, I thought.

Trayvon, I can sign petitions and protest for you and I will, but what I will do in your name is to make sure that my own children are raised to see all people as good until they prove themselves otherwise by their actions. This may seem like a simple act, but it is not. Racism in our society is so deep, so insidious, and so ubiquitous, especially in the circles of White privilege where my children will grow up, that it is full-time job to moderate the consciousness of my children alongside the continuous work I must do of checking myself. This work takes conversations and experiences and carefulness and explicitness and reflections -- it is WORK.

It is doubtful that one of my children will be shot dead for wearing a hoodie and walking at night in a suburban development; it is far more likely that one of my kids might grow up to own a gun and have some unfounded racist ideas that would prompt him/her to use that gun against an unarmed Black kid. That idea horrifies me. It is so easy -- too easy -- to be a racist White person in our society; it is much harder to fight those accepted racist ideas. I chose to fight, even when that means fighting my own self.

I wish I could paper airplane this up to you in the sky, or email it to your email account (how many did you have?), or Facebook message it to you, or Tweet it to you in a series of so many tweets that you would get annoyed and stop reading like many teenage boys do when a book gets too slow or preachy or tiresome.

I will continue to carry with me the image I have of you alive that wasn't fed by the media: I see your lanky body in a too small desk in my old classroom amid a mixture of students I knew over the years. The bell just rang and class is starting. I tell you and a couple other boys to put your hoodies down as class begins, and you pull yours back and smile your sweet smile, mumbling "Sorry, Miss" as you take out your notebook, pen, and whatever text we are reading that marking period. You situate our materials for class next to your 99 cent Arizona tea on your desk. Class begins.

Each time I replay this scene in my mind, my heart aches again for the loss of your precious life.

Love,

Lori Ungemah