I am a mother.
I have only been a mother for the (nearly) 20 months since my son’s birth. I have, however, had many children. Some have called me “mom” because of the closeness they have felt to me but most have called me Mrs. Varnell. Some have been pleased to see me outside of our normal context and readily introduced me to their parents/guardians/friends as ‘their’ teacher. Perhaps, as if I only belong to them and not to any other of my many students.
I am a teacher.
I have been a teacher with a classroom of my own for eight years and substitute teacher for one year prior to landing my first job at the ‘urban’ middle school in my town. We have a demographic that has ranged from 80%-90+% free and reduced lunch and our minority population (if all the minorities are included together) are a slightly higher population than our white population. Some of my kids’ stories will tear you open and leave you wounded and raw. That is, if you take the time and risk to look past the outside shell of the student walking around the halls.
I have told countless students of every ethnicity, “cover up your cleavage, pull up your sagging pants, hide your belly and for the love of everything lovely, take off that hat or hood when you are inside the building.” Until recently, the only time I saw one of my students wearing a hood inside, it was a simple annoyance at having to reiterate the school policy AGAIN to a student who knows better. Now? Now it’s different.
Now when I see one of my kids wearing a hoodie I can’t help but think of the horrible atrocity of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Who, unlike my students, was not wearing a hoodie inside. Trayvon Martin was outside. He was walking home from getting candy for his little brother. An act of thoughtfulness that put him in the path of a racist with so little regard for authority that he disobeyed when told not to pursue this child. This racist who used Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law to stalk, attack and murder a child in cold blood.
I’ve seen the pictures of Trayvon. He looks like many of my kids – clean cut, sweet demeanor, polite, intelligent. Can you tell all that from a picture? I think you can. Every time I see the pictures or hear more about Trayvon, my heart breaks for him and for my kids. My heart especially breaks for my African American boys.
I want to tell them that no matter what their family life is like or how many obstacles their skin color creates education is the key. If they will just become educated, get a college degree, find something they are passionate about and work hard, everything will work out well. I know better now.
I know that if they get a good education and work hard there will be some in the world who will never see them as anything other than a color. Some will never see my boys as anything more than “scary, violent, gang bangers, lazy, illiterate, poor.” The adjectives could continue and my heart breaks all over again. It shouldn’t matter the color of their skin. The only thing that should matter is their integrity, their work ethic, whether they are kind to others. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in.
Just when I start to think that the sacrifice Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others made is starting to pay off, just when I think that the world is coming around and things may truly be getting better, just when I get a little comfortable something tragic occurs and I am shaken to my core.
Now, every time I look at my boys of color – no matter their ethnicity, I want to hold them. I want to squeeze them tight and not let go. I want to tell them so many things. Not everyone is cruel. Not everyone will judge you based on your skin tone. Not everyone will lay the fault of your victimization on something you have done. For you haven’t done anything. All you have done was be born into a world you didn’t ask for. You have laughed and cried, loved and hated, been knocked down countless times and stood up ready to try again.
I want to make sure they know they have to try again. They have to get up, they have to show the world that they are boys who want the same thing as all the other boys in the world. They want a chance to grow up. They want a chance to leave their mark on the world. They want those who love them to be proud of them. They want to be able to walk to the convenience store and buy an iced tea and a pack of skittles for their little brothers and sisters and make it home without being hunted and killed. They want to go home to their fathers. They want to go home to their mothers.
I am a teacher. I want to teach my students so many things but how can I teach them when there are others whose message drowns mine out with every act of violence or discrimination that continues to be perpetrated. I want the chance to teach my boys of color but how can I even attempt that if they can’t make it home alive.
I am a mother. I want to teach my son to be kind to others, that the outside of someone is such a small fraction of who that person is. I want my son to understand that the color of his skin doesn’t make him any better or worse than anyone else. I want my son to love God and understand that just as he was created in God’s image so was every other human on this planet. I want him to be a man who will do more than place a 911 call when a child is being attacked and yelling for help. I want my son to always come home.
I want Trayvon Martin to be able to go home.