I’m supposed to be prepping for my 11 o’clock class. I’m teaching a tutoring course where students work in first year courses to support fellow student writers. Today we’re reading Muriel Harris’s “Collaboration is Not Collaboration is Not Collaboration” where she makes distinctions for the reader in the way we view collaboration in and out of the classroom. But I can’t focus on the readings. I can only seem to focus on the Michael Brown verdict, if you can call it that. I must admit I have mostly buried my head in the sand about this and like many, I am not surprised at the outcome. Mostly when white cops kill young black men, there are few to no consequences. It is another blow, in the fabric of our culture, which reminds me that black lives don’t really matter in this country and that young black men live in fear of their lives from every authority figure that ostensibly is in existence to maintain peace in our society, to protect people.
I can’t really add anything thoughtful to the conversation on that level that likely hasn’t already been said. But, I’m a teacher. Many of my students are people of color. Yesterday, a particular favorite student of mine was in my office for a conference. He is a lovely, young, black man. He’s so tall and when he speaks you can almost barely hear him sometimes. He hides in his tallness as best he can. He doesn’t often look me in the eye. And he’s so so smart. His writing is thoughtful and I can see him pushing at the bonds of the freshman English class where so many of his peers can’t write like he can or can’t deal with complex ideas like he is able to. But despite that, he works at patience. I can see it. And he quietly helps the other students learn. He writes interesting things. When we sat together yesterday, he really looked at me for the first time and I felt honored. Honored that I get to do this job, honored to know that my students know they can trust me, even if it takes a little while to get there.
He is just one example of a student I love. And I see part of my job in this profession as being one of protection. Or maybe even if it isn’t my job, I feel so protective of my students. Something about them being in my classroom takes them out of the bounds of being a stranger, just another human I’ll never know. I get to peer into their minds and encourage them to push, to open, to learn, to inquire, to stake their claims in the world of ideas. So today, I feel so heartbroken. Because now when I know another family has to grieve their progeny killed by the state, I am afraid and I am angry. It is not distant because I imagine that it could be my student, my handsome, tall, brilliant, taciturn student who deserves to be able to be alive and well in this world, to contribute his heart and his life in peace and in safety.
Now any time a young person gets hurt, I see my students. I want to protect them and so by extension I want to protect others. I want to make a difference and make it so this doesn’t happen anymore, to anyone. I want these young people to have their chance in this life. I feel they deserve it. So, yeah. I’m unprepared for the class discussion today. I’m instead, sitting at my desk, weeping as I write this. Wishing that my own wanting things to be different could really make them so. Feeling so ineffectual against aggression. I have barely been able to stand up for my own safety and peace when faced with a person who I perceive as having utter disregard for women, who appears to me to systematically work in his own life to undermine the strength of the women he encounters. Instead of standing up, I have only known how to try to protect myself, to heal, to forget. I haven’t known how to make a stand. I keep asking, how can I use my life differently? Am I doing the right thing? Am I too close to see the way things really are? Do I have any power? Am I wrong to feel the way I do—bitter, angry, frustrated, betrayed? Can I forgive anyway? Can I find compassion? Will it ever be ok?
Today, I don’t have those answers. Instead, I find myself just hoping and praying that the young people who are under my care for a semester, can all be safe and well and live long, amazing lives. For my students of color, I especially want this to be true. I want to tell them how deeply it hurts me knowing that they will not feel safe in the way that my Anglo students will. Traffic stops and simple encounters with institutions can put them at risk. I cannot even really open my mouth and find the words to tell them how much I wish it were different.
When I go to class, one student brings up Ferguson right away. And even though I’ve promised myself I won’t cry in front of them, I do. Hot tears of sorrow run down my face in front of the class. I tell them, I’m crying because I imagine Michael Brown if he was one of you, how hard it would be to lose any one of you like that. I tell them I want them all to be well. I tell them my heart breaks over this. We talk about it. We don’t talk about the politics of it, but instead the feelings we’re all having of which there are many. And then, we talk about writing, which also, always feels important. How we collaborate, interact and assist each other in writing instruction is symbolic of what we do with each other out in the world. How do we ask the right questions? How do we let the writer have their own sense of power and purpose? How do we talk about ideas and make them better? How do we push each other to be better in difficult situations? How do we just let each other live, and be without violence?