To the teachers of Ferguson, Missouri: those who taught Michael Brown and those who will teach on in the coming days.
For days now, as I have been reading, watching, crying, and talking with others; I have been thinking about you. I have been thinking of Michael Brown's family and friends, of course, but I have also been thinking about you, fellow educators.
I do not know what it is like to have a tragedy of the scope of Michael Brown's killing happen in my community. I do not know what it is like to see police marching in riot gear and riding in tanks down my neighborhood streets that should be filled with school buses. I do not know what it is like to delay the opening of school because of these tremendous injustices that the rest of the world can only watch on television. But, like far too many teachers around the country, I know what it is like to see the children who are entrusted to you have their lives and their futures taken from them. I know what it is like to see an empty desk and remember... whether the student sat it in recently or years before, because it will always be that student's desk to you.
Then I started to wonder: is anyone writing to you, teachers of Ferguson? Is anyone thinking about how you are sleeping, what you are telling your own children, and how you are going to greet a new group of students in the morning? I hope so. I hope there are many, and mine is just one more voice in a chorus of supporters. I hope that this chorus is loud enough to overpower other voices that marginalize people of color in your community or that ignore what is happening in Ferguson.
Michael was a recent graduate, destined for college this month. But I do not think it matters that he was no longer technically a student in your schools. As teacher-blogger Peter Greene wrote:
And as any high school teacher would immediately recognize, Michael Brown was undoubtedly still part of his high school community. He would have still been known, been the guy who younger teens knew as one of the 'big kids.' Any death of a recent high school grad resonates through the students who are still there and about to start the new year.
And, of course, it resonates through the teachers, too. I imagine there is nothing I can say that will ease your understandable confusion, anger, grief, and frustration. Perhaps the grief counselors who (I hope) will join you and your students can help you begin to heal. I feel brokenhearted for you and your community and yet unable to do anything of consequence. Yet since I've sat on the other side and seen the empty desk, this is what I felt like I had to say, to someone. I hope it reaches you.
So, in the absence of any solutions, here is what I do know: on Monday morning and throughout this year, there will be thousands of teachers around the country -- indeed around the world -- who are standing with you in solidarity. Educators in K-12 schools and universities will be talking about Michael with our own students, like we talked about Sean and Jordan and Trayvon and Renisha.
Sure, there may be some people who will say we shouldn't talk about "things like this" in schools, especially at the beginning of the year. It's too intense, they'll say. It's not in the curriculum, they'll say. There's no time, they'll say. But to them I would say, if not now, then when? If not us, then who?
As you attempt to build a safe space in your classrooms, I will try to do the same in my university classroom for future teachers. Many of my students may be White, in line with the current demographics of U.S. teachers, and may be resistant to talking about issues of race and privilege. Nonetheless, we will talk about how what happened in Ferguson is reflective of historical, political, and social conditions. We will name it as racism (rather than, as fellow educator Katy Swalwell pointed out, couching it as "race relations"), and we'll talk about why those with White privilege need to be allies in the struggle for justice inside and outside of our classrooms. When I challenge them to consider that "the struggle for justice does not end when the school bell rings," I will be thinking of you, of Michael, and of the Ferguson protestors. In all of our spaces, as we work to combat the "danger of a single story," I hope educators can honor the memory of Michael and all our youth who we've lost too soon.
Every day, it takes great strength to be a teacher. Thank you for being models of this strength as you begin your new school year this week.
Signed, a fellow teacher,
Dear readers, If you, too, are deeply troubled by the events unfolding in Ferguson, I hope you will find a way to stand in solidarity with the community in whatever way you are so moved. This is one small attempt in a way that made sense for me and hopefully means something to the teachers of Ferguson. If you are a teacher and are looking for ways to discuss these events in your classroom, consider starting here, here, and here. Should you be willing to share your plans, I would love to hear it.