In defense of our babies
I didn’t want to see the video. I heard about it on Facebook, of course. That tends to be the place I hear about all the horrible shit happening in the world, especially to people of color. I actually avoided the video. When I saw it on my feed, I quickly scrolled down. This can’t be possible. Not again. Dios mio, in a school?! Eventually I gave in and watched it. My chest seized. I thought of my daughter. I thought of the damage I would do to any pendejo who dared put a finger on my child. I posted it as my status: “I’ll say this in no uncertain terms: You put your hands on my kid, Imma come for you.” I don’t condone violence but I protect mine. I am, after all, from 1980s Bushwick, when it was all grit and rubble, before the yoga studios and fifteen dollar burger joints.
I digress. I started reading essays and articles and memes. I clicked on people’s statuses to join conversations. To vent. Rant. Release. Share in the collective grief and rage over yet another child of color, this time a young black girl, being treated like an animal. I learned that the officer (I still can’t get myself to type his name) is a body builder. That’s why he so easily flung that child over, like she was a rag doll. Him, with his muscular build and privilege, saw this child as a threat. This pendejo also has a history of being excessive and brutal. I can’t say that was a surprise. I thought about my train ride home earlier this week.
It was around 7pm on a crowded NYC uptown bound A train. I had just stepped in, or rather squeezed in, with my kid, after a long day of three back to back meetings that included building a fifteen day Nonfiction Writing curriculum for third graders. I also taught an hour and a half long poetry class to high school students. In a word, I was exhausted. I grabbed onto the nearest pole and my eleven year old daughter clung to me since there was nowhere else for her to hold on. A six foot five white man leaned his entire 200+ pound weight on my arm. He had been leaning his back on the pole and was enraged that I dared to use it for, you know, what it’s there for—to hold on to so you don’t go crashing into people and the floor. I was annoyed, yes, but I tried to be kind when I asked him, “Can you please be careful with my arm?” That man turned around and through a sneer told me to “shut the fuck up.” Not five minutes later, an older but no less resentful white man, shoved my daughter’s book bag away because it got much too close to him on the same crowded train. A black man who was behind me standing by the doors leaned over and asked, “You okay, sis?” He glared at both those white men, neither who dared look at him. I call this what it is: white male privilege. People still have the cojones to say that it’s the black man I should be afraid of. Nah. That six foot five pendejo got off two stops later and he kept his eyes cast all the way down when he passed that black man who came to my defense, all white male privilege and punk ass.
I sighed at the memory and kept scrolling and reading. It didn’t take long to find people defending the cop’s actions. I read some real heinous shit, from all kinds of people, black, white and brown, saying that young people today are out of control and “need to be put in their place.” They said that girl deserved what she got and the cop had no choice. They insisted that they would have done the same and if that was their kid, they’d be thanking that officer. Some people insisted they needed context. They asked, “Well what did she do to provoke him?” as if there is a reason, an excuse for treating a nonviolent child so viciously.
I don’t want to lose faith in humanity. I want to believe that we all know better and want to be better and want the same for our kids, but when full grown adults that claim themselves educated insist that a child somehow looked for it or deserves to be dragged to the floor by a grown man because she gave him lip or was petulant, I can’t help but wonder what the fuck is wrong with us. I’m a mother. I’m a teacher. I have taught in some of the most disadvantaged communities in NYC, but I have NEVER raised my hand to a child. These kids have been told repeatedly that they are the problem; that they are not worthy of respect or love or tenderness. Treating them like animals reinforces this. I wish people would be part of the solution; come into the trenches and show these kids their beauty. Show them what they’re capable of. If you can’t or won’t, you are part of the problem.
I was so angry and hurt, I got a stomach ache that lasted into the evening. I thought of my students. I thought of my daughter. I thought of how frustrated I’ve been with some of my students, at their sass and disrespect. I thought about the one who cursed me out last year; the other one who came up in my face a few years ago and only backed down when she saw I wasn’t scared (she later apologized and thanked me); the one who kicked a chair so hard, it hit the wall and put a dent in the dry wall. No matter what happened, I never thought to lay my hands on any of those kids. Why? Because I am the adult. It is up to me to model behavior. It is up to me to remember that a seventeen year old is still a child and does not have the same mental or emotional capacity I do. It is up to me to remember that this child has a life and a history that I do not know about, and if she is acting out, chances are there’s something going on in that child’s life that has her so distraught and lost and feeling alone, that she can’t think straight, all she can do is ache, and that ache is manifesting itself right there, in that moment, in hostile behavior. I know what that’s like. See, I was once that girl.
I grew up in a violent home in a violent neighborhood where I didn’t feel loved by my mother, and I learned early on that no one could protect me from her. The beatings and emotional abuse were a daily reality. I didn’t know who to turn to. I was lost and didn’t believe myself worthy of love and tenderness. I thought the world hated me—if your mother can’t love you, you believe that no one can, that you are not capable of being loved. I resented the world for it, so I had some pretty serious behavioral issues. I fought a lot. I acted out. The paradox is that I was an excellent student, academically, but otherwise I was out of control. (From early on, school and books were my escape so it makes sense that I would excel in school.) In the seventh grade, I got into a fight with an eighth grader. I knocked two teachers down trying to get to that girl. One of the teachers, Ms. Raphael, was enraged that she had broken three of her long, red nails trying to break up the fight. She dug her nails into my arm and tried to yank me away. I pushed her hard, sending her crashing to the concrete. I hurled myself at that girl again, all fists and rage and pain. This time I knocked down Mr. Roth, who if I remember correctly was my Social Studies teacher at the time. He could have just given up on me. He could have reinforced all those horrible things I already thought about myself. Instead, the next day he pulled me out of class and said, “What’s all this aggression, Vanessa? We’re gonna take that and put it somewhere else.” He helped me through the next two years of my life, and in the eighth grade, he introduced me to the A Better Chance (ABC) Program and convinced my mother to let me go. This man, with his salt and pepper beard and gentle blue eyes, made me believe that I deserved a scholarship to boarding school. He made me believe that I was worthy, that I was enough. In August of 1989, I left everything I knew and loved to make my way in the world—Bushwick, Brooklyn to Wellesley, Massachusetts. This remains one of the most defining decisions of my life.
All this is to say, a teacher saw through my pain and helped me see what I was capable of. He did for me what that girl needed and still needs: someone to hold up a mirror and show her the possibilities. That’s what teachers are supposed to do. That’s why I became a teacher. If you can’t do that, get another job.
On Thursday, my daughter came to meet me at one of my teaching gigs in East Harlem. She stared at the Latino History Month bulletin board and pointed at familiar names and faces: Junot Díaz, Frida Kahlo, Celia Cruz. Then she looked at me and said in the most sincere, I know this to be true tone, “One day you’re gonna be on a bulletin board like this, mommy.” I confess, I had to blink hard and swallow the lump in my throat. I thought of that young black girl who was dragged like an animal, and I thought back to that little girl I was who was in so much pain, it manifested often in some really ugly behavior. I wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had a teacher who believed in me and showed me that I could be better. Would I have gotten this far and accomplished so much? Would I have gone to one of the top schools in the country, Columbia University? Would I be this writer and educator and mother who can raise a girl who believes in her mother so fiercely and, in turn, believes in herself just as certainly? (We be mirrors, right?) I’ll never know, but today I’m thankful for teachers who actually see their students as sentient humans with lives and feelings and complexities. Teachers who are invested in their students and their futures.
I later talked to my seniors about the video and the backlash. I took the time to remind them, “I know I’m hard on you, but I’m this way because I know what waits for you out there.” I pointed out to the busy Second Avenue street. A bus roared by. “And I want you to be ready.” They nodded. One of them, the clown who I know has more depth than he cares to share right now, said, “We know you love us, Ms. V.” We laughed. I nodded. Then I excused myself and went to the bathroom where I washed my face to keep from crying.
My students are my babies. Even the ones that give me a hard time have my heart. I teacher where I do and how I do, an iron fist donning a velvet glove, because I am them and they are me. This is what teaching is about, and if you don’t get that and you’re a teacher, you’re in the wrong profession.