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Sharon Van Epps Headshot

My Son Could Be Trayvon Martin

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The rain came down fast and hard, the wind whipping it sideways as I walked across a parking lot toward University Drive. My jeans were soaked and my sweater glued to my body. The walk from campus to my apartment would be a long one.

A battered yellow station wagon pulled up beside me, and the driver rolled his window down. "Do you want a ride?" His face was friendly but not overly so.

"Are you a rapist?" I asked, immediately regretting the question.

"No, " he said, laughing. "I'm a corrections officer. I work at the prison."

He opened the door, and I dropped my wet backpack under the dash and climbed in. The car was old but clean. I noticed the man's own backpack on the back seat. He wasn't much older than I was.

If my grandmother had found out I'd accepted a ride from a strange man -- a strange black man, no less -- she'd have been furious. I wondered if I should be afraid. I'd always relied on my intuition to judge people, and it hadn't failed me so far, but eventually I was bound to make a mistake.

The man and I talked about school. He was studying for a criminal-justice degree during the day and working at the prison at night. When we arrived at my building, I thanked him and dashed off through the rain. I never saw the man again.

Twenty-five years later, I am the adoptive mother of an Ethiopian boy. As my son is growing older, I note the apprehensive way that white strangers sometimes look at him, and I find myself wondering why that man ever stopped to help me. I understand now that the man and I both took a leap of faith that day when we trusted each other.

Today, the hardest and most painful part of my job as a mother is teaching my now nine-year-old son that others fear him for the color of his skin, and that their fear renders him vulnerable. The horrific killing of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida last month has served as an ugly, raw reminder that I have to figure this out, I have to do more -- I have to teach my son how to stay alive. The fact that I am white and no one taught me these things growing up makes me feel inept but I have no choice but to try.

By all accounts, Trayvon Martin was an exemplary young man. At age nine, he pulled his father from a burning kitchen, saving his life. Trayvon played football for his high school team and was a good student aiming for college and a career as an aviation mechanic. And it's clear his parents had coached him on how to survive; on February 28, when he spotted a white man following him through his father's gated community, he told his girlfriend over the phone that he was worried but wasn't going to run. Because Trayvon knew a black boy running looks suspicious. A black boy running looks guilty. A black man running is a threat.

Trayvon Martin was a good kid who did everything right. And now he's dead. Parents of black boys everywhere -- parents of color who unfortunately know exactly what to teach their children and parents like me who are still learning - all of us mourn. We can never, ever do enough.