When Teachers don't "Show Up"

“These progressive white folks just aren’t showing up for black lives.”

A friend said this without even hesitating, not surprised by the relative inaction of a group of people who have historically been much better at lip service, Facebook posts, and frankly, blog posts, than actually working to change a system that is unfairly weighing on the shoulders of people of color in America.

It’s true.

Generally, white people aren’t showing up for black lives.

And, as long as we are talking about privilege and power and the drunkenness it often causes, men aren’t really showing up for women, rich people aren’t showing up for poor people, and straight people are missing in the LGBT fight. In what has become a far too predictable reality, people with certain privileges in America have a hard time setting down their cheese and wine to help others get to the table.

I’m not sure I have anything to add to my friend's comment. It seems like an appropriate observation of the way this country, and my own city often treats issues of injustice and power. I just want to extend it to education in a way that doesn’t seem like too far of a leap.

Teachers aren’t *always* great at showing up for our students either. I put those little asterisks in there as my own little grammatically incorrect way of keeping you from spitting your Starbucks out as you read this. I actually want to make a point here, and avoid you clicking on the little angry emoji and saying mean things about me. We do show up a lot. Most of us are there every day, fighting in a myriad of ways for the little people that fill our rooms every day. But for all of the supportive and powerful actions that teachers take for their students, there are as many missed or ruined opportunities to tell our students and their families that we are standing and fighting with and for them.

Two things this week have me thinking about this. One of them is a news story in Pittsburgh that has been part of a larger national conversation around police brutality and, more directly, the literal destruction of black lives by people in uniform and the allowance of that norm by the rest of us. The other incident is more local and involves a friend of mine telling me about the way a teacher treated her and her black son in an interaction.

Both of these things provide teachers with a way to show up. We have opportunities all the time to tell our students, especially our marginalized students, that we are here to empower them instead of cowering into the vicious and brutal narrative of power, privilege, and violence that is as American as baseball, apple pie, and entitled assholes in really big vehicles.

Last summer in a small suburb east of Pittsburgh, a 17 year old named Antwon Rose II was running away from a police officer who was holding a gun. The officer, a man named Michael Rosfeld had a history of violent behavior and was newly hired to that police force, fatally shot Antwon 3 times in his back as he fled from a traffic stop. This week in a trial, that same officer said he shot in part because he feared for his own life as Antwon was running away from him without a weapon. I’ve never been armed, but I think most of Pittsburgh, at least the people I know, wondered how a man with a gun could feel afraid while a teenager without a gun ran away from him. We played lawyer and juror on our facebook pages and at our water coolers and sitting at the bar, but deep down we knew how this story plays out because it has happened so many other times.

We hoped this time would be different, but two nights ago we learned that it wasn’t. The former officer was acquitted on all charges, never spent one day in jail, and went to sleep last night as a free man. It sends a very clear message: black lives are not protected by our justice system. While one family grieves a death, another family moves on as if nothing happened.

Then, on Monday, English classes everywhere will go on. All last week there were discussions in my class about the trial that was taking place just 3 miles from where we sit in room 375. My students, most of whom are 17 and black, took the chance to proclaim what they saw as the obvious guilt of a man who pulled his gun on an unarmed teenager and shot until, as he said on the stand, “the threat was eliminated.” I think to most of them, it seems like an obvious case. But my students recognize something else here that smells of evil, hatred, and the racism we allow.  They said, over and over again, that if that were a black man with a badge shooting a 17-year-old white kid as he ran in a suburban neighborhood, then the black man would be locked up forever. We can talk about systems that give too much freedom to police officers, but many of my students see the situation differently. They see a world that has forever excused white evil while finding new ways to punish, kill, and destroy black bodies.

I don’t know how to “show up” in class on Monday, but I’m sure that space has to be given for people to vent, talk, and discuss the events of the weekend. I’ll do what teachers do all the time. I’ll try to weave the discussion into the essay that we are working on so that students can have space to write about what they are processing and feeling. I’ll tell myself that discussing this in class is kind of my version of showing up, and I’ll second guess whether I’ve done enough for the entire week. I’ll think I could have done more. I’ll look for every opportunity to tell my students that they matter a whole hell of a lot to this 35-year-old white guy who is usually confused about how to stand up to evil. I’ll try to find as many ways as I can to build up, and try to push back on any tendency to tear down.

As usual, I’ll end up with more questions in my head than answers.

The second thing that happened last week was much more local. A friend told me about a situation in her son’s school that involved a teacher who shared some of his opinions in the school’s digital reporting system that parents can see. After a disciplinary incident a few weeks ago, the teacher called my friend. She listened to him respectfully, but didn’t really appreciate the way the teacher was talking to her and felt as though he was treating her like she was a student. She told me she didn’t say much and she hung up the phone. The teacher wrote in the notes, which she saw later that the “parent does not seem to care” about the situation. I told her she was right to be angry, and she was probably even right to feel that there was some racism, implicit or explicit, in the teacher’s notes.

That parent went to her son’s school and filed a complaint about the teacher’s editorializing and unprofessionalism. And I realized that this is what we always do in America. We ask the person who is wronged to speak up about how they have been victimized, and we give the people wronging them the privilege of ignorance. Our inaction implies that we believe that people of color have to take to the streets and the courtrooms to save their own lives, and that it is the parent’s job to take on the institution wronging her and her child. We too often ask our students to stand up for themselves when they are neglected, demeaned, or treated unfairly, instead of telling them that we would be honored to stand beside them in their fight.

I’m not sure these two issues are related other than in the jumbled up mix of emotions that is my brain right now.

I am sure of one thing: white people, teachers, and any people with power and privilege need to exercise that power and privilege for those who have been historically forgotten or abused. We should make it our job to notice where we are asking others to speak for themselves and start holding the microphone for them. And echoing their chant when their voices get tired.

I’m not sure how this looks in class on Monday, or for the rest of the year, or the rest of our careers, but I’m certain it requires work, creativity, awareness, courage, and action.