I have been close to most of my students but as always happens there have been some with whom my connection was far stronger than with others. One young man in particular appeared to be quite lost and headed for trouble. Seeing his downward trajectory broke my heart because he was incredibly bright and I saw something quite special in him. Over time we spoke often and I encouraged him to create positive goals and to work hard to achieve them.
Life was not easy for the young man. He lived in a rough neighborhood where temptations were a constant. His family struggled just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Gangs often approached him in hopes of recruiting him because he was big and muscular and smart. He had already had some brushes with the law before I met him. In many ways he had given up on himself until I interceded. After our talks he began to view himself in more positive ways and as his grades improved he discussed dreams of becoming an engineer. I felt confident that I had played a small role in saving him from the downward pull of the environment in which he had been living but I had underestimated the power of forces that gnawed at him every single day.
Shortly after the Christmas holidays one year a theft occurred at the school. One of the students had lost some electronic gear and he and his parents were quite insistent that it had happened at in one of his classes. The administration did a search and made inquiries all to no avail. I made a plea to all of my students that they do the right thing and help to return the items to the rightful owner. That lead to a tip that broke my heart. The student with whom I had invested so much time and emotion had been seen with the stolen gear.
I did not want to believe that my protege had fallen from grace but I had to interview him to hear his side of the story. At first he concocted several lies but eventually broke down and admitted that he had taken the item and even a few other things that nobody had reported. He was planning to sell them in his neighborhood’s black market. The change he made from such deals provided him and his family with a little bit better life than they might otherwise have had.
To this day my stomach clinches and I want to sob when I think of what happened. I realized in that moment that my student lived in a world that I would never quite understand. I could not justify what he had done and of course I had to report him to the administrators but I was sickened that the progress he had made in redirecting his life had been so suddenly altered. As he sobbed in front of me and proclaimed, “I know you hate me now” I was stunned. Without hesitation I assured him, “I will never hate you. I love you, but I hate what you have done.”
I suppose this is the state of my conflicted emotions during this difficult moment in our nation’s history. I will always love my country and unlike many I will never have thoughts of leaving it because in spite of its flaws it is a great but still imperfect nation. I am willing to see those flaws and know that they are wrong. I dislike them intensely, but not the idea and ideals of America. Being a firm believer in reconciliation I am always willing to forgive but I also know that we must first squarely face problems, admit they are present, and then do our utmost to begin the process of repairing them. To do anything less for our country at this moment in time would be akin to my covering up my beloved student’s infraction, pretending it was not there. It would be the least patriotic thing that I might do.
I was ultimately able to defend my student as someone whom I believed to be innately good and worthy of help, but I made it clear that his actions were wrong. He ultimately returned the stolen items, made restitution and underwent a program of extensive counseling and support. I have not heard from him in many years so I don’t know how things ultimately turned out but I’d like to believe that we somehow saved him from a life that seemed so inevitable back then. So it is with the United States of America. I believe that we are the good guys but many of us have been lying to ourselves that all is well. We have overlooked problems because they have not affected us personally.
It is quite human to want to avoid conflict particularly when it does not appear to be worth the effort. Some people even endure abusive situations rather than shake up the status quo. The great unknown of change can be frightening and so we fall back on comforting routines. Unfortunately if there are problems they inevitably grow until they can no longer be ignored.
I have been hearing concerns from my Black friends, colleagues and students for decades. At first they were rather quiet and somewhat nervous whispers and like so many I did not take them very seriously because in truth they did not affect my personal life. As time went by they became more and more insistent and so I tried to quell the fears of those who were confiding in me. Before long I began to notice the kind of things that they were telling me. I saw that they were indeed being treated differently than I was only because my skin was white and theirs was black. It made me feel uncomfortable to face that truth but I still felt that there was little more that I might do than to assure them of my love for them. Because nothing was ever really done to address the very real problems that they had described the impact of them became more and more noticeable over time until we finally reached this moment when our country seems to be on fire with rage.
I now see them. I now hear them. I now understand that something must be done but I am filled with fear because somehow the message is being lost in the furor of the moment. I know without a doubt that the looting and the graffiti and the destruction is wrong but those are actions, not the essence of what the vast majority of African Americans are attempting to tell us. I believe with every fiber of my being that in spite of the horrific scenes playing out we must remain calm. We must let our Black brothers and sisters know that we love them. We must begin a dialogue that has been too long in coming. We must join them in the work to bring the change that we need to see in our country.
We can show the true strength of this nation only by using what is best about it. The first amendment is perhaps the most important tool that we have. It assures us that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and the right to petition will be protected. Our goal at this moment should be to use these freedoms to loudly and strongly defend and protect our Black citizens in their cry to be heard.
I long for a leader regardless of party affiliation or economic status to bring calm and comfort to the situation. I long for a leader with a real interest in discussing what needs to be done. We must find such people for surely they are in our midst. We must use the most wonderful tool that we have to bring them to the fore. We must bring them to our aid with our votes. I pray that with that power we will be able to find individuals who are willing to set aside their own agendas to do the work necessary to bring our country to the place where it always should have been. Our votes should be our voices.