From the Classroom to President Obama

Dear President Obama,


On November 9, 2016 we were all scrambling to find meaning from the events of the last 24 hours. I’m a 33 year old white teacher, and I had been up most of the previous night drafting a letter to my  students.  By late morning on the day after Donald Trump had shocked us all, I was tired. Then, on that Wednesday afternoon, I sat in my Creative Writing class and discussed the events of the last 24 hours with some high schoolers.  I’ll never forget one student, Marcus, who is a senior struggling to get the credits he needs to graduate on time, asked if he could stand up.  He started talking, or almost preaching, about the importance of what was happening.  He talked about law enforcement, Attorney Generals, and how terrifying things like “stop and frisk,” “Broken Windows,” and mandatory minimums were for him and some people he loved.  He told the class they had to stand and fight.  

I didn’t say a word.  I didn’t need to, or even want to.  Marcus was the expert here, and students listened in part shock (Marcus hasn't always been the best student) and part agreement.  Then one student spoke up from the back. 

“Turn on CNN, Obama is talking to us.” 

“Obama is talking to us.” 

I started teaching in September of 2009.  You looked different then.  You were 8 years younger, and the lines on your face were less pronounced. The silver hair that was just foreshadowed back then is now prominent.  You have aged well.  I recently looked at a picture of myself from your first presidential campaign.  My wife, Becky, and I were standing with our good friend, Rick.  We are all wearing Obama 08’ T-shirts with pride, and I am hoisting a yard sign high above my head.  Rick is on the other side of Becky, and he is holding the same sign across his chest like a badge of honor. We all look like babies. 

All of our faces seemed to take on 8 years just like yours did.  Lines are a bit more pronounced, smiles are deeper, and experiences like holding jobs in our city, having children, and growing in our respective relationships and marriages have added layers of depth to all of our appearances.  My students, my friends, and now my children have aged with you, Mr. President.  I’m humbled by that.  I can’t help but reflect.  

I think I have one of the best jobs in the world, and this week I am reflecting about how much you have been a part of my classroom over the last 8 years.  I remember watching the look on my students’ faces when they watched your first back to school address in September of 2009.  We all went to the auditorium of our old high school and, though the sound was bad, students gazed with a new wonder as you spoke to them.  Your tone, your style, and your demeanor wasn't like presidents in the past.  The students at the predominately black high school understood the significance of the moment.  Something had changed and it was not just that the president’s skin color reflected their own.  Something had changed in the discourse and the conversation.  Our country was speaking, and listening, differently. 

I can’t tell you how much your words have echoed in the classroom over the years. In part, that is because your presidency is all I have known as a teacher.  But more specifically, I am learning that I can’t fully understand how your words, actions, and presence in that office have impacted students.  Your voice has been regularly shared through Facebook feeds, our TVs, and our conversations.  I can only say what that meant to me. For many reasons, I don’t know exactly what your words do when they swirl in the mind of a teenage boy or girl from the North Side of Pittsburgh.  But I know what people say. 

I remember when Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The whole thing seemed like a mess and wouldn’t have typically been something that captured the attention of teenagers.  But you said something that brought this into our classrooms. You said that ”there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately.”  You went on to say that it shows "how race remains a factor in this society.” It was a deliberate statement, and something that wasn’t news to many of my students. 

Then, a few years later, our country watched as Trayvon Martin was murdered in the sleepy streets of a Florida town. This caught my students’ attention differently than the incident with Gates.  This, in a sense, was them.  A child really, wearing their clothes and carrying their snacks, experienced some of the same harassment that many of them had experienced in their lives.  Tragically, for Trayvon Martin, it ended with his death.  I have to believe that you noticed my students, and whole families and communities, watching you then.  You said very poignantly that when “Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son.  Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” I remember these words clearly, and it was the same kind of sentiment that my students were sharing at the time.  

I teach in my neighborhood which is racially mixed, but the school is almost entirely black.  I remember these moments so well because they created some magical experiences in the classroom.  A teacher looks for moments when the students become the expert.  When students can lead, gain confidence, and find their voice.  Now, students found their words coming from the highest office in our land.  The importance of that change cannot be overstated. In conversations of race, equity, and many other things, I submit to the voice and expertise of my students.  Thanks for your part in helping me learn how to do that. 

“Turn on CNN, Obama is talking to us.” 

“Obama is talking to us.” 

We have all aged over the years, and I have learned a lot. My guess is that you have learned a lot too. I’ve learned that one of the most important things a teacher can do is step back. To listen.  To learn from everything, especially the students in the room. I’ll never forget what my student said that day from the back of the room. When I look at the whole of your presidency, I think this may be one of the most important contributions. From 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, you successfully spoke to the students in my classroom.  We’ll miss that.

Thanks,

Jason Boll