The wrong choice #SOL19 29/31

Earlier this month, Sherri over at Sherri’s Slice of Life Project asked if any of us were thinking about race and, if we were, challenged us to write about it during the month. I think about race a lot for various reasons, but I’ve struggled to find the right story to tell. Today, I’m sharing one. I have others that I will share over time. I share this one with a pounding heart and the sincere hope that others will recognize that I am striving to do better.

I found my former student in his English class. He knew why I was there. So we walked.

I said, “I heard about X’s class. You want to talk about it?”

Pause for a moment: I am a White woman from a privileged background; he is a young biracial man whose single mother works hard to make sure they have what they need. I probably wasn’t the ideal person for him to speak to. But I’m all he’s got in this school. It’s me or someone like me because in a school with about 80 teachers only two are people of colour. Neither of them chooses to emphasize that part of themselves in the school. Neither of them is Black or biracial, either.

“It’s just… we don’t even talk about this stuff in class. I feel like we should at least talk about it…” His voice trailed off.

The “stuff” was racism. His mother had called the school to complain about racism in his English class. The teacher had shown two movies with images of lynchings, images of the KKK, and White characters using “the hard R” (I had to look it up), and had not discussed or contextualized any of it. The images and the words were not central to either film, but they were present. During the second movie, this student walked out. No one else did.

My student was frustrated. “It’s just… no one else cares about this. And this is the only time we’ve even seen Black people this semester. And it’s like it’s not even happening, like it’s just normal or invisible. And…”

After a long conversation, I asked him what he would like to see happen next. He said he just wanted to talk about these things in the class. He wanted the teacher to acknowledge what they were seeing and hearing. I asked who he would like to lead this discussion. His teacher? Absolutely not. We cast about for the right person. Finally he said, “Well, you could do it.”

First I said ok. Then I said no. I know the kids in the class, and I love talking with them and listening to them and helping them think about things. But how could I place myself in front of them as the right person to lead this discussion in a room where race was being ignored? It felt wrong to me. That said, who else could speak to the issue of racism?

And this is the crux of it: I could only think of one Black man who might be able to talk to the class. So I got in touch with him. It still makes me feel sick.

I asked a well-known Canadian spoken word poet to come to our school – not because of his incredible work but because of his skin colour. I told him that this is what I was doing. I told him that I was asking because I really wanted to honour my student. I really wanted him to know that someone was listening, that someone was trying.

This wonderful poet agreed, then declined, then agreed again. I think he and I were having similar misgivings. At best, his presence – the presence of an award-winning poet with black skin – would be a band-aid. Neither of us thought that anything in the school would change. Neither of us thought that what we were doing was a solution or even an adequate response. In the end, I think I asked and I think he came because we wanted that young man to know someone cared.

I think it was the wrong choice.

Oh, the presentation was wonderful. He said things that I didn’t know, that I couldn’t know. He said things that I couldn’t say. He was honest and open and thoughtful. He engaged many of the students in the classroom, not just the one who had complained, not just the students of colour. He was great.

I had asked that both the teacher and the Vice Principal attend and they did. For a brief moment I thought maybe they had heard, maybe this wasn’t just a band-aid. But in the end, the teacher neglected to mention the presentation the next day, and continued on with class as usual. The payment for the poet was inexplicably delayed. The student’s mother ended up calling the board office to complain.

And me? I had used a man for his skin colour rather than for himself. No wonder there was no change.

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27 thoughts on “The wrong choice #SOL19 29/31

  1. Wow! Your honesty about the experience is striking. I’m sad, but at the same time I get the sense that this is a first step in a longer journey. You have reflected well on the experience, and I wonder what your next steps will be. Or will the Board of Education take on the problem? Thank you for your honesty on the subject.

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    1. I feel like I am constantly learning on this journey. I know that my decisions helped the students in that particular class in that moment, but they also allowed the school and the board not to notice the problem for a little longer. So I guess my next step is thinking about this from a more institutional perspective.

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  2. Dear Amanda, thank you for taking on this challenge with breathtaking honesty and self-analysis. One of the bravest things we can do as writers, as teachers, as humans is reveal our regrets. You offer us a situation that is rich in examples of the roles really any of us might occupy in upholding, denying, avoiding or whitewashing racist behaviors in our own midst. Coming clean with ourselves as you demonstrate here should never be underestimated. It is vital and it’s the only real chance we have to ever becoming truly free. Thank you.

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    1. I’m lucky to have people around me who give me space to reflect and grow – people like you and the poet in this post (who I wrote to prior to publishing). In this case, my desire to help in the moment made it so I could not see the bigger picture. Good intentions… Now that my perspective is larger, I still need to figure out what comes next in this journey.

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  3. Amanda, thank you for writing about this topic with such vulnerability. Such a hard thing to talk about and write about. I have been thinking about this call from Sherri too… It’s so hard!

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    1. I think about race quite often but when I sat down to write I could never figure out how to approach the topic. This post did not start out this way, but as I wrote I realized that I needed to be honest about my own limitations before I could be honest about other thoughts. This is one of the scarier things I have posted, but I trusted our community to see me through thoughtful eyes. Thanks for being part of that community.

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      1. I also think about race often. I am currently reading Austin Brown’s I’m Still Here. It constantly makes me feel so uncomfortable, but I know that I need to sit with this and make changes

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  4. Privileged white person to privileged white person, thank you for demonstrating so clearly how to admit to and be sorry for screwing up when it came to an issue of race. We need to hear more examples like this. This is the sort of thing that happens all the time and rarely do people put aside their intentions to understand how what they’ve done could be unhelpful, or in some cases harmful. Your humility and willingness to share are inspiring.

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  5. If you don’t know Sara Ahmed’s book Being The Change, then you should. She gets down to the nitty gritty of social action. And she also admits that the process is long and slow, but it can be done. I don’t think you made the wrong step. I think you just made the first step. There needs to be a second and a third and so on. The conversation needs to happen again and again. Thanks for your honesty.

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    1. You know, I started this book with the online group this summer & then I put it down. Maybe it’s time to pick it back up. I like your perspective that there needs to be a second and a third step. Indeed, the post I started to write was about when this poet came back to our school – to my class! – for a week as a poet & what an incredible influence he had. But first, it turned out, I needed to think about this part of it.

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  6. Amanda, thank you for taking the risk to share this. It was beautiful, and powerful, and while you weren’t in a position to solve the school’s problem — or even to offer the sort of response you would have liked to have seen — one of the steps that is necessary to help move us, collectively, to a better place on these issues is for the reality of our present situation to be better understood by all. That’s exactly what you were doing by being willing to be vulnerable like this.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve seen a *lot* of situations like this, and there really wasn’t anything more, or better, you could have done. The students undoubtedly learned a lot from what they heard, which is great, and they no doubt took away a powerful message from the lack of institutional response, which is not great. Without institutional buy-in, there is simply precious little that can be done from where you sit. But as painful as it may have been, I suspect doing nothing would have been even worse.

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    1. Thanks, James. I think you nailed it – the problem I see here is that when I tried to “fix” the problem in the classroom for the student, I let the larger problem go unaddressed. I can’t fix the institutional issue, and I have to decide when doing nothing is better than doing something. It will be interesting to see what happens the next time an issue like this arises – because it will arise.

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  7. I applaud you for writing and meeting the request. These stories are painful and so difficult to face, present, and conclude. And- what should you have done? Was there a right answer? You took steps- that was important.

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    1. I don’t think there was a right answer here. It was a tough situation, for sure. I definitely prioritized the needs of the student, but in doing so I exposed my own involvement in a systemically racist institution. (Not that my school is worse than others in the area – just that school is a tough place for racism.) Anyway, I still think about this situation a lot, even though we’ve definitely moved on from it.

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  8. The jump from “I think I asked and I think he came because we wanted that young man to know someone cared” to “I think it was the wrong choice” still has me reeling. I appreciate you sharing this story, and now I wonder: What’s your next move?

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    1. Interesting because that’s the part that was the hardest for me to get through. I was trying to help this kid, and I actually think I did that. But I’m not sure that it ended up being the right choice because helping him involved smoothing over something that really isn’t smooth – and it involved me reaching out to someone because of his skin colour. To be fair to me, I do know more Black people than this: I asked this man because he connects with students, has been in our school before, has a way about him that encourages thoughtfulness… it wasn’t *just* his skin colour that caused me to call him. Hmmm… now that I’m typing, the real reason I think it was the wrong choice was because it allowed the institution to go right back to the way it was, including both the teacher and the administrator. So… right choice for the kids in the moment, wrong choice for the general direction of the school. And next steps? Well, the poet came back and worked with my class as a poet for a week, so that’s something. And… well, I’m still thinking about the rest.

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  9. Wow. What a complicated story. I love how you explain your struggle, and how you were trying to do the right thing but it maybe didn’t work out. But maybe it did too. And I wonder if the poet is still regretting/not regretting back and forth the decision to come.

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    1. I asked him if I could post this. I think he’s accepting of what happened – he knew better than I did that this would not lead to change. And he has come back to the school since then to work as a poet. He even worked with my class & they *loved* him. He’s pretty incredible. It was a complex situation, for sure.

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  10. “I had used a man for his skin colour rather than for himself. No wonder there was no change.” That line really hit me. In thinking you were doing something beneficial, you realized you contributed to the problem, as many of us have. Again, without realizing it until after the fact. Thank you for being so honest. I hope your student grows up to try to make change and not just accept it as normal. All of us privileged white people could benefit from this.

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    1. That line was my major revelation. I really think that the poet knew no change would come. I was more hopeful – and far more naive. I’ll have a wider perspective next time, for sure.

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  11. What an honest and interesting post. I think the very fact that this student was so comfortable sharing with you is such a fine reflection on the kind of teacher you are. He had someone to talk to and that’s important. Maybe having that poet speak in the school influenced other students in a way that you can’t exactly know. You tried to do the right thing by that student and that is the beauty of your effort. Thank you for sharing this.

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