Once, as an American History teacher, I shared a current event about how the US government had decided to offer reparations to the surviving families of Japanese Americans who had been interned in camps across the Western United States during World War II. As an apology, the survivors, which in the most part were grandchildren and great grandchildren, were given $20,000 - $40,000 to compensate for the loss of income and livelihood during that volatile time.
After sharing this current event, one student in particular, a student who I disliked very much, but was also very good friends with the only African American student I had in class, a student whom I loved dearly, asked me a question. He wanted to know why the government didn't pay reparations to the ancestors of slaves - why their families didn't get $20-40,000 to make up for the loss of livelihood for generations. At first, I tried to logically explain American history and the questions involved with such a process. How do you begin to pay back possibly a million or more families? How do you trace the records of people who were never accounted for? Where would you even start?
These questions and my attempt at an answer weren't enough for this student, who was quickly becoming my enemy. He was Hispanic, and had felt prejudice and racism in his short life, and he saw it in the story of the government and history I was trying to paint. He started to yell at me, raising his voice in anger and frustration at the injustice he felt I was justifying. In turn, as I sat in my desk at the front of the room, papers in hand, I yelled back. I raised my voice, but probably surprised him with my response.
I don't remember everything I said that day, but I remember I maybe had never been so adamant and vocal and emotional in my whole life as a teacher. I do remember that I shouted back. I shouted quotes from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King about injustice and inequality. I argued that slaves never stood a chance because of the system that existed and finally, though the details are hazy, I shouted, "Isaac, it's because they were black!" and as I calmed myself down I said, "The government would never do such a thing because it would be impossible and because slaves were black!"
That pivotal moment in my classroom was a life changer. I remember looking at Tim, my black student, and having him smile his beautiful smile at me. Maybe he was mocking me because once again I had let Isaac rile me up. Or maybe he was proud that I'd vocalized and figured out something that he'd known for all of his 16 years.
Either way, this story came to mind today as I was pouring over postings on Instagram about the decision by the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri yesterday. As the details continue to evolve and unfold, I don't know what to think. I don't know what side to be on. I feel horribly for all the mothers who have ever had to witness something tragic happen to their children, and then feel like no justice was served. I am sickened that something like this happened because of race, if that's the real motive. I am nervous that police officers are so quick to fire their weapons and "shoot to kill". I am disturbed to no end that robbing and looting and committing additional acts of crime feels like a just response, that it feels like the only response. Why is it when, whether our "team" wins or looses in any capacity of life, as a culture we feel it's okay to take from the innocent and uninvolved.
I've read statistics on crime rates. I've seen the numbers of how many black men have been murdered in the last few months. I've once again, read those same Malcolm X and Martin Luther King quotes that I've read so many times before. But, I've added some Maya Angelou, some Toni Morrison, and some Cornell West into the bunch as well.
It's so sad to me that all of this still exists in the world. That we don't see people for people and crime for crime. That it feels like we're going backwards as a nation. Baton Rouge re-segregates schools, injustice because of race is okay, and there are people of every creed, color, and race oppressed in the nation that is supposed to be the answer to "the dream".
My boys and I, every once in a while, have talks about skin color and how some people look different than others. We talk about how it doesn't matter, that you are friends with everyone and stick up for everyone. Every day, as we wait in line to be dropped of for school I tell the boys, "Be good. Be smart. Be kind to everyone."
I surely hope they are hearing me.
Also in our house - though it may seem a little unrelated, we talk about the fact that in this life, you are either a Beatle or a Rolling Stone. I am a Beatle through and through. And, as I've been thinking about all of this today, a song game to mind, sung and performed in a movie that is so reflective of what is happening today, but identifying with a time decades ago.
These are pivotal times in a volatile world. It's a little scary. But I will do my best to stand up for what's right, and make sure my kids do the same.