The Burden of Teachable Moments
The eighth-grade girls enter homeroom in their patent leather oxfords, crisp white shirts, and steam-pressed blazers. I smile and say, “Good morning.” They toss their blonde and brunette manes, swish their hips, smile back and say “hello” politely—the way their mothers and nannies taught them to. I greet everyone at the door, despite the fact that this is not my homeroom class and I am not their homeroom teacher. I don’t want to be seen as the angry, unapproachable black woman on campus. There aren’t many students of color at this affluent all-girls K-12 Catholic school and even fewer faculty. Most of the black and Hispanic staff members work in the cafeteria serving meals, as maintenance or groundskeepers, or as security in the parking lot making sure no one breaks into the Mercedes Benzs and BMWs the juniors and seniors drive to school in.
My olive skin, kinky curly Dominican hair, handmade foreign jewelry, and Target-bought slacks don’t quite fit in with all the blue-eyed, pearl necklace, and cardigan-wearing teachers and students that surround me. And because I refuse to tame my hair or my sense of style, I try to fit in by smiling often and saying “hello” to everyone, including the cafeteria staff, the maintenance workers, groundskeepers, and the security guards. I’ve seen the way some of the other teachers treat the staff and I don’t want to be like them. I don’t want anyone to presume I’m stuck up or rude.
Because most of the cafeteria and maintenance staff are people of color, we know how all the white teachers and administration see us and we know our place in this world where tuition for one student costs more than what we earn in a year, so when we see each other we smile and nod and ask each other sincerely, “How are you?” It is the kind of “how are you” that goes beyond the superficial small talk everyone else engages in next to the coffee pot. This “how are you” asks, “Are you managing this all-white space okay?” and “Are you taking care of your mental and emotional health?” and “What can I do for your today?” It is the kind of “How are you?” that makes it easier to come to work every day.
I particularly enjoy greeting the parking garage security guard Mr. Johnson. He’s an older black man with a hard face, and not an ounce of fat on his bones. He’s been at the school for decades and made a career out of directing the traffic that comes in and out of the garage during drop-off and dismissal time. Everyone knows he should probably retire, but he takes pride in his work and says the school’s been kind to him all these years, so why should he leave. Mr. Johnson takes his job very seriously and picks up parking garage trash, sternly reprimands anyone who goes above the 10 mph speed limit, and warns teachers to only park above the third floor no matter how late they are because the first two floors are strictly reserved for visitors. I’ve heard many of the teachers complain in the faculty lounge that he’s too strict about the rules, but I know him to be a very kind man.
Every morning when I walk past him he calls me “baby” or “sweetheart,” and I know it’s because of my complexion because I’ve heard him greet the white teachers and it’s always just “Good morning sir,” or “Good morning ma’am” or “Have a good day Mrs. Jones,” or “See you later Mr. Roberts.” But with me, he always says “Good morning baby” with a sweet-tea, Texas southern drawl and a charming smile that probably earned him a slot on all the lady’s dance cards back in his day. I think it’s because he’s genuinely happy to see a person of color in a teaching position and I know he feels a certain kinship towards me because of my race. Maybe I even remind him of a granddaughter or a niece. Whatever it is, Mr. Johnson’s good-morning-baby greetings always get my day off to a good start.
Today, as the girls to stagger in to homeroom, Ms. Hadley, their homeroom teacher smiles and also greets everyone at the door. Ms. Hadley is a white, quirky music teacher who doesn’t wear cardigans or pearls. She’s considered eccentric because she wears long skirts inspired by Frida Kahlo and billowy blouses that are three sizes too big for her petite frame. She has thick blue rimmed glasses and messy curly hair that she’s always brushing out of her eyes.
“Okay girls, settle down,” says Ms. Hadley, adjusting her glasses and tossing her stringy brunette curls back. “Today is going to be used as a study hall. You can study in a group or work alone but you need to keep the volume level down.” The girls sigh in relief and giggle, eager to waste time.
Sometimes during Ms. Hadley’s homeroom, I go to the workroom to make copies or I work in the library if I need some silence, but since the girls will be studying, presumably in silence, I decide to stay in the room and grade papers. For the first ten minutes of class, the girls are quiet. The only the sound that echoes in the room is gentle breathing and the clicking of keyboards. Soon enough, however, the girls begin to whisper and talk. They ask each other questions about the three branches of government and quiz each other on dates and events. It is clear they are studying for history class. Eventually they veer off topic and begin a discussion on modern-day politics.
“I’m so glad Hillary Clinton is running for president,” says the brunette with pink braces, “She might be the first female president. That’s like historical, ya know?” She’s beaming now and some of the other girls are nodding their heads in agreement.
“Well, I know my dad is voting for Trump, and I don’t really care because have you seen Melania’s Louboutin heels? They’re amazing; my mom bought a pair just like them for her birthday.” This young lady then takes out her lip gloss and reapplies it on her lips, using the camera on her iPhone as a mirror.
The girl with pink braces rolls her eyes and continues talking, sharing her feminist views about how great it is that women finally have a voice in politics. As the discussion evolves from feminism and Melania’s shoes to actual talk of immigration reform and racism, I shift in my seat and hope the girls change the topic soon, so I don’t feel compelled to share my own political views. But the topic doesn’t veer away from politics and eventually half the class is engaged in a conversation about “the wall” and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The girls are civil at first. They listen and respond to each other in moderate voices and reserved language. No one gets upset or loud and their arguments sound like regurgitated catch phrases of something they heard their parents say at the dinner table. (“If other people got here legally why can’t they?” and “The government should not have to support other people; they should just get jobs.”)
Though Ms. Hadley told the girls to work quietly, I think she appreciates that the girls can engage in meaningful political conversations, so she does not redirect them to get back on task or to quiet down. Since it’s not my class, and I try to stay out of political debates with anyone at work, I don’t redirect them either. I want to let the conversation run its course and I promise myself I won’t interject as long as it remains civil. But just as the conversation begins to die down, the inevitable, ignorant comment arrives.
Lipgloss girl with blonde hair and blue eyes blurts out: “I mean racism will always exist. People aren’t always going to like other people because of their hair, or their clothes, or their shoes, or whatever. It’s just the way it is.”
I look up from my computer screen and glare.
Pink braces girl with brown hair and darker skin is full of rage: “No, that’s not okay. You’re not understanding…”
Different girl with blonde hair, brown eyes, and a gray cardigan interrupts: “I mean, honestly, black people just need to get over slavery. Like it happened so long ago!”
A few of the girls nod their head in agreement. I clench my fists and look around the room hoping to make eye contact with someone else who might understand what I’m feeling, but no one looks back at me, and no one else in the room has enough melanin in their skin to feel what I’m feeling.
Girl with pink braces and brown hair almost screams: “What?!” She begins fumbling for words to try and explain why the girl’s logic is flawed. She is clearly appalled by what the girl has said even if she can’t articulate exactly why.
Ms. Hadley interjects: “Guys, let’s get back on track and back to work.”
She shuffles her papers and adjusts herself in her seat. I continue staring the girls down hoping someone will notice I’m in the room and I’m upset.
The room falls silent again. I realize that Ms. Hadley has no intention of addressing the comments that were made. She is not an ally, and this is not her battle to fight despite the fact that this is her homeroom and homeroom is supposed to be the place where these kinds of issues are talked about.
My heart beats like a frenzied knock on a door. I try to be still and breathe but the air stops in my chest. I take a few minutes to process their conversation. I don’t want to come off like a “defensive angry black woman.” I craft my calm, educated response. I use this as a teachable moment.
I collect my thoughts and with steady legs I stand up from my desk. I rub my palms dry. I relax my shoulders away from my ears. I let my face go neutral. I relax my brows, unclench my jaw, keep my nostrils still, and force my mouth into a gentle half smile.
I approach the small group of girls who was engaged in the conversation. I pull up a navy blue plastic classroom chair and sit down next to them. I am trying be a part of their circle, not above them or outside of it. I want everyone to feel safe and not threatened even if that is exactly how I am currently feeling.
“Listen to me for a moment okay?” The girls look up at me, their faces bright red. “I need you to understand something.”
I swallow hard, pause, and start over. “I’m not here to make you change your political views or to debate with you about political candidates. But I need you to understand something.”
I fold my hands together in prayer position and place them gently on the table to keep them from shaking or flailing about while I talk. I don’t want them to know I am nervous or afraid or angry. I continue. “Racism is not about not liking someone because of their hair or their shoes or their clothes.”
I make eye contact lip-gloss girl. She lowers her bright blue eyes and fiddles with a loose thread on her uniform skirt. “Racism,” I emphasize, “is about treating someone unjustly because of the color of their skin. Something they cannot change. Racism isn’t just about not liking them because of their race, it’s about treating them differently. Believing they are less than you are and discriminating against them because of it. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I wring my fingers a bit but keep my hands steady on the table. The girls nod.
“Secondly, black people do not need to ‘get over’ slavery.” I use air quotes because my hands have begun to sweat and I needed to air them out. I lower my hands and wipe them on my Target-bought polyester pants and continue with my gentle but stern lecture.
“What you have to understand is that the effects of slavery are still felt today. It exists in the form of institutional racism, when someone like me doesn’t get the job because my hair doesn’t look professional enough. It exists in the fact that the majority of people that live in poverty-stricken communities are black and Latino and other people of color. It exists when you realize that prisons are built based on the number of black and brown boys that cannot read by grade three. And we can especially see it with regard to police brutality when black men and even women are more often brutalized or even killed by police at a higher rate than whites. As a woman of color, it really upsets me that you think black people need to get over slavery. I don’t know how many black people you interact with on an everyday basis but you are talking about humans here. You cannot be flippant and dismissive with your comments and your logic. You need to show some compassion when you are talking about human beings.”
My voice begins to crack so I clear my throat. I look at each one of the girls one by one. The heat in me rises. My skin feels like the Texas pavement in July. I know my words have struck a chord but I need them to feel at least a fraction of my disgust and horror at their comments so I bring up the one angle I know none of them could dispute.
“You wouldn’t ask the Jews to just get over the Holocaust would you?” They immediately shake their heads no. And stare at me horror stricken that I could even think to say such a thing.
“Right. Just because it happened before any of us were born, doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt the people that experienced it or had family go through that experience.” The girls continue to nod and it’s almost like I can see a few dim light bulbs going on above their heads.
“When it comes to slavery, even though it’s mostly black people’s ancestors that aren’t alive anymore that went through it, we still live in a society that treats us as less than because of that awful time. We don’t live as slaves, but many white people around us still operate under a slave master’s mentality. Look, every time I am afraid to get in my car because I think of what could happen to me if I get stopped by a cop because I’m a woman of color, or every time my husband, father, or brother leave the house and I worry they could get stopped by the cops and won’t come home alive. That’s why I can’t get over slavery or racism.” The girls have all lowered their heads and cannot look at me.
“Girls, I appreciate that you are willing to have these discussions, but we must do so with an understanding that we are talking about human beings, and we must show empathy just like Jesus would want us to do.”
I have to throw in a cheap Jesus reference because it is a Catholic school and I know from experience how effective Catholic guilt can be. One way or another, I also need to make them understand my hurt. I invoke Jesus’s name because I know that what He thinks of them matters to their young cashmere hearts and the last thing they want is to be seen as evil or hateful in the eyes of God. The girls sit slumped in their chairs some shuffle their papers, others sigh. I stifle the lump in my throat and get up from the small blue plastic chair.
“I just wanted to let you all know how your words made me feel, because truthfully, racism doesn’t always have to exist. But if you believe and accept that it will, then it will. But we can change that by changing our thinking, and doing our part to change our actions and those of others. Makes sense?”
“Yes ma’am,” they muttered in unison and seemed relieved that the conversation was ending.
I head back to my desk and stand behind it trying to decide whether I want to stay in the room or leave. I feel the adrenaline of the conversation coursing through my body. I feel queasy. I stare at my computer. I look out at the room. I stare at a motivational poster on the wall until it blurs. I rub my clammy hands together and try to focus. The classroom air wraps itself around my neck like a noose. I can’t breathe. I grind my teeth and feel my mouth go dry. I swallow to stifle the pounding behind my sternum. I feel my chest tighten. The room spins. My temples pulse like a drum. I try to sit and lose my balance. I grab a hold of the water bottle on my desk to steady my feet. I wrap my arm around my belly and realize I need air. I push my chair in, walk across the room, and leave.
My legs are still trembling and I don’t know where to go on campus where I may be left alone, so I take a quick stroll around the courtyard and end up in the school’s empty chapel. I go inside hoping it will quiet my mind. The moment I walk in, something steadies inside me. The chapel is icy and dim and the only light that comes in is from the sun that pierces through the softly tinted windows. Inside the chapel there are at least a dozen rows of blue cushioned chairs, an altar with a sullen Jesus hung on the cross, and long, white candles perched on top of golden candelabras. The chapel has vaulted ceilings and one stained glass window on the left hand side with a brown haired woman wearing a white mantilla. There’s a small kneeler in front of her and a votive candle holder lined with new and burned-out votive candles people have lit during prayer.
I walk up close to the window and stare at the woman for a moment. I can’t figure out who she is because I never paid much attention in Sunday school and all the virgins and saints look the same to me. She might be the Virgin Mary or she may be a sainted sister of the Sacred Heart, I don’t really know, but I ask her to help me. I kneel in front of her then get back up at the thought of praying to a white woman. The steadiness I first felt when I walked in to the chapel leaves me. I sit in a chair near the window and say an “Our Father” but the words are shackles on my tongue. They don’t feel right for what I am feeling. I have not trespassed; I don’t need forgiveness; those girls do. Why was I always the one saying I was sorry? When would I learn to stop apologizing for being me? I had done nothing wrong.
My mind is a flurry of thoughts and I don’t know what to say or do, but I need to break the silence that exists inside me, inside this chapel. I cannot pray. Prayer is too passive. I shake my right leg up and down. My breath becomes short again. I look up at the virgin woman in the window and ask her in my head: Why did I have to leave the room? Why do I feel like I’ve done something wrong? Why do I have to remain calm all the time? When will I finally be able to just be angry? She doesn’t answer. I grip my pant legs, dig my nails into the side of my thighs, press my face into my lap, and scream until I can finally breathe again.
Rumpus original art by Leesa Travis.