Thank you PBS News Hour for allowing me to tell a part of the story that is often overshadowed by negative mainstream media. And may I just say, it's an honor to have my very first publication be written for PBS! For my own records, I decided to post the unedited version here on the Garden.
I was teaching my last class of the day. Emily, my co-teacher, answered her phone. As the students completed their independent reading assignments, I couldn’t help but listen to her half of the conversation, not knowing what was being said on the receiving end.
“That’s a rumor!” … “No way!” … “I don’t believe that either!”
I looked at her as she hung up the phone, hoping she would tell me what that was all about.
“They’re planning to raid Mondawmin.” She whispered, trying not to let our students hear her. “I don’t think its true. Its probably just a rumor.”
“No its not.” Aliyah, one of our 8th graders, responded to Emily’s disbelief. “It’s all over Instagram.”
The sun hadn’t even gone all the way down before Aliyah’s truth became our city’s reality. The Nigerian Uber taxi driver that took me home from school was just as nervous as I was, after hearing the toothless old man that was standing on the bus stop that he picked me up from say, “They burning North Avenue down!” All I could think about was the safety of my students, who make up the majority of my Baltimore family, being that I am originally from New York. WBAL’s breaking news flashed cross streets like Reisterstown and Liberty, Gwynn Falls and Swan, Eutaw and Franklin, and the closest to my home, Pennsylvania and North. I teach at a charter school that has a lottery entry system. This means that my students come from all over the city – including many of the places that the catastrophic protests were taking place. I watched the news all night, hoping I wouldn’t see one of my babies in any of the crossfire. I just wanted the night to end. I wanted the next day to come as fast as it could so that I would be able to comfort my students and make that they were safe. But that wasn’t going to happen. We received word that the city was in a State of Emergency and schools would be closed until further notice. I logged into Facebook to find that my colleagues were outraged with this decision. Wouldn’t the children be safer in school?
“Good morning, we're hoping you are available this morning to come to SBCS to plan how we will greet our kids on Wednesday, how we will support them. We want our kids to know how much they are loved.” - was the text that came from my school’s administration. I walked into our school’s library on a morning, even though it was supposed to be a day off, to find twenty other teachers, in break out sessions, planning the most appropriate structures for re-welcoming our students into the school community. The elementary grades decided to engage the little ones by using art as a healer. They chose to use a coloring picture of a row house with open arms that read, “Give our city a hug”. It was drawn by one of our art teachers on the night of the riots. They also created a mural on a bulletin board in the school’s main hall that read, “A Love Letter to Baltimore”, in which all of the students from grades kindergarten to eighth grade could post their own message on. In the middle grades, we knew the one thing that our students would want is to be heard. We devised a lesson plan that revolved around one essential question: What now?
Every member of the faculty arrived to school bright and early on Wednesday morning, with smiles and hugs for every child. We were trying our best to create a sense of normalcy.
It wasn’t normal though. There was so much confusion on the faces of the children. Emotions were high and there was an eerie silence among them all. I couldn’t just jump straight into the conversation of “what now” until I altered the temperature of the classroom. I gave my eighth graders sixty seconds to hug as many of their peers as they could. There’s an old proverb that says, a hug can change everything. This was proven to be correct. By the time the students returned to the circle on the carpet in the middle of the room, they were smiling. I felt like they were ready to begin to engage in the discussion protocols that the teachers and I planned for them.
We framed the dialogue with our morning message: This morning, we are going to spend some time reflecting on what has been going on in our city. Be as open and honest about how you are feeling. I welcome your questions. If anything makes you feel uncomfortable or too upset, please do not hesitate to tell me. This classroom is your safe space. Then, we facilitated a one-word whip, which was the initiative that allowed me to gauge the mood of each student. I knew it would help me with determining the most appropriate direction to lead the class in.
Each of their words made the climate of the room feel dreary again.
“I didn’t know you guys felt this way.” Mr. Bonabe looked around at our students, seeming lost for words himself. Like Bonabe, I wasn’t expecting those words from their students either.
“When we outside”, Kylik began to explain, “Its like all fun and games but when you really think about what’s happening, it makes you feel uncomfortable and angry… especially if you from Baltimore… it’s like, when you go out of town and tell someone you from Baltimore, you can see how they face’ll change.”
“We were just talking about that the other day.” Jeremiah spoke softly as he interjected. “We thought it was all a laughing matter for people to look down on our city but now that we see all of the riots and stuff…it’s not funny. This is why people judge us.”
“But if it was me, if I was old enough, I would be out there too but not doing it like they are doing it. But I think people are just fed up with police brutality.” Kiara seemed torn as she spoke.
“But you have to understand that there is a difference between protests and riots. Protesting is peaceful and although it may get a little profound, no one gets hurt. What they did yesterday, that was riots. They took this protesting as an excuse and took advantage of Freddie Gray’s death to rob stores and for petty items.” Scott’s voice was strong. His understanding was beyond his 13 years.
“I agree.” Diamond, who lives in the neighborhood that Freddie Gray is from, began to speak from a place of sorrow. “If you think about it and think about the CVS that they burned down, that’s where their grandparents could get their medicine and food and they didn’t think about that. They just burned it down.”
“But it’s a reason for all of this. It started peaceful when they were downtown protesting but when they got near the Oriole’s stadium, their fans began to incite the riot. People got angry. So that’s what caused them to riot and stuff like that.” Raekwon tried his best to justify things, even though he was one of the students who said he was disappointed.
“But at the end of the day, violence period doesn’t help any situation. Its like punching a hole in the wall; at the end of the day, you gon’ have to fix that hole. It’s just like 1968. They set us back as a city.” Aliyah looked around as her peers agreed with her but I could see it in her face, in this moment, she wished that she wasn’t right. She wished that none of this was happening at all.
This conversation went on for another few minutes. Each of them were respectful, letting one another speak, even when they disagreed with someone else’s rhetoric. I could’ve let them go one for the rest of the day because I was compelled by their insight but there were only fifteen minutes left in the period and I still needed them to process their thoughts in writing. I advised them to take their passion to their pens and reflect on the question: What now? I wasn’t ready for their responses:
“Keep the National Guard on deck.”
“Don’t believe everything you see on TV and online.”
“It’s going to be like Marshall’s Law. Don’t go outside past curfew or you might get hurt.”
“We need more leadership from the older people since the government doesn’t care about us.”
“If they don’t find those police officers guilty, things will get worse. It’s going to be a living hell.”
I was speechless. Was I really talking to a group of 8th graders? The only question I could ask them next was, “Do you feel safe?”
“Yes and no. It just depends on where I am. I know they wont come near my house or rob our corner stores in my hood.”
“They taking anger out on the police, not me.”
“What if the National Guard shoots us accidentally?”
“I feel safe at school and at home but not when I’m out anymore.”
“I don’t feel safe because if they don’t find those officers guilty it’s going to get worse.”
“It’s not safe but it’s our home so we have to make it better.”
“Prepare for the worst.”
The last one gave me the chills. I shared the sentiments of my students. Hearing them express themselves with such fervor and passion showed me that they are conscious of what is transpiring. This is still very confusing for them, as it is for many adults. With less than five minutes left, the only thing I had time to do was debrief and wrap up our discussion, using the question: How do you feel now?
Diavion showed growth, maturity, and remorse when saying, “I actually feel different. At first when the riots started happening, it was cool to me because I wanted to riot too. But hearing how everyone says they don’t feel safe makes me feel guilty. I didn’t think about the consequences at first.”
Other members of the class expressed gratitude and appreciation for being able to talk about their feelings as candidly as they did. This confirmed the fact that having this discussion was vital.
“I feel relieved that I was able to share this today because just keeping it bottled up doesn’t help me. What if you bottle it up so bad that you go out and do something foolish.”
“I feel like I am apart of the solution, not the problem.”
“I feel better now. I’m glad we could talk about this. I thought we were not going to talk about it and I was going to have to keep my feelings inside. My feelings were respected today.”
“I feel comfortable and I’m glad I could express myself.”