The Talk

“My hands were shaking like a leaf my first time.”

I cocked my eyebrow and scrunched my lips in a mock disapproving grimace at my nineteen-year-old student. “I thought we had agreed to lay off the sex-talk, Charles.”  He hated being called Charles.

“Naw, Miss. It’s not about sex.” The plastic and metal school chair tipped as he leaned back and balanced on the back legs; he shot me a grin.  “It was the first time I got frisked by cops. I was scared shitless.” And then, “Sorry for the language, Miss.”

This was a casual class of eight regulars, another fourteen popped in and out of class, usually once a week. The eight regulars were mostly friends, all African-American teenage kids, who had decided that this goofy lady teacher, who dressed in long skirts but didn’t blink when they tried to shock her, was okay.  And so they showed up to class. For some, it was the only class they attended all day.

These were no angels, my students. They were in a repeater class (some for the second time) for the New York State ELA Regents Exam mostly because they had cut a lot of classes, not because they couldn’t learn.  They had already decided they weren’t going to college and didn’t need to pass the state exams.  These were kids who lived in areas of Brooklyn I wouldn’t have felt comfortable driving in, let alone walking through.  And looking tough was part of survival for these guys.  We had been working on using metaphor, and I had asked each student to choose from a list of standard similes from a printed sheet and use one in a sentence.  Charles had gone first.  “My hands were shaking like a leaf my first time.”

That sweaty June afternoon, with the air hanging over us, stifling any metaphor practice as it was, we decided to talk about those first times.  I didn’t have much to teach them about getting frisked by cops, but I could tell each of these young men wanted to talk about the simile Charles had chosen to share. And so we did.

Not all of the class had been stopped and frisked on the streets of Brooklyn. Two of the teens shrugged and joked that they must look too harmless to be bothered. But the other six kids talked about hanging out, walking down the block, sitting on a stoop, playing football in the park, and then being approached by uniformed cops, asked to empty their pockets, show their hands, turn around and spread their legs.

More than anger, they felt humiliation. You don’t put on a show, they said, when cops are frisking you.  You drop the toughness for a bowed head and open hands. They had promised their mothers, fathers, uncles, grandmothers that they would “be good” for the cops.  They had promised their families that they would protect themselves by following directions and not challenging authority on the streets.

“You look just above the right eyebrow,” Andre, the most articulate kid in the class, told me.  “Looking a cop in the eye is like a challenge, so you look up a little.”  Nodding heads all around.  I exhaled just a little when he said that. I had always thought when kids avoided my eyes in the hallway that it was a sign of disrespect.  As a Dean of Security, my walkie-talkie was about as authoritative as it got in the school’s hallways.

These students of mine knew the power in their appearances.  And many of my class of eight regulars rose to around six feet, towering over my five foot four frame when they entered the classroom.  They knew which “train face” to use after dark on the E line – we each demonstrated our best “leave-me-alone” face.  They were pretty convincing.  Even mine.  But mostly, these eight African-American young men who came to a class they didn’t expect to pass were just kids.  Kids who got asked to stand still while their pant legs were searched and their pockets were patted down.  Kids who should have been making similes about sexual encounters (real or imagined), not getting frisked by police officers.

Charles never graduated from high school; he went on to earn a GED and work as a bouncer in Prospect Heights.  He once came back to visit, just to say hi, and told me he was going to move down South.  Maybe to Baltimore with family, maybe to Florida for the weather.  He’s a sweet guy, and he’s black.  He’s funny and silly, and he’s big.  He’s polite, and he also has dignity and pride.  I’ve been thinking about him a lot these past couple of weeks.  If 140-pound seventeen year old brown-skinned kids are threatening enough to follow and confront and kill, I’m terrified for the men like Charles.

Seeing the photos of Trayvon Martin and hearing the reports and tapes and stories from witnesses, I can’t help but think about my students and some of the stories they shared with me.  Michele Norris asked the Twitterverse about giving their kids “The Talk” regarding how to behave in different situations, especially with authority.  It brought me back to my first (the first of many) talk I had with my students about switching between being a (sometimes truly obnoxious) teenager and being viewed as a potential perpetrator.  Almost without fail, it was my students of color who had had direct experience with law enforcement and being treated as criminals without first behaving as such. “The Talk” wouldn’t have helped Trayvon Martin’s situation. In his case, a layperson had it out for him because he had dark skin.  If you haven’t yet caught up on the Trayvon Martin murder, please do so now.  If you have to choose between reading my post and catching up, please choose something from this list.  Trayvon, just like my students, had a mother, a father, a brother, uncles, aunts, friends, romantic interests.  He could have been any one of the teenagers mentioned in this story. Trayvon Martin is our society’s son.


About That Unique* Weblog

Adjusting to car culture, dealing with leaving a career I loved, and spouting off along the way. Do The Most Good.
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54 Responses to The Talk

  1. Mical says:

    Thanks for drawing attention to this, Kristin.

  2. Lenore Diane says:

    What a wonderfully written post, KD. Trayvon’s family has been on my mind for the past several days, and I’ve read every Tweet you’ve sent regarding Trayvon. I was pleased when a radio talk show host spoke about Trayvon today. He’s a conservative talk show host, and he spoke to the wrong done to Trayvon. I do hope the shooter is convicted, though it will not change what happened that night; moreover, I’m not sure it will change society.

    In order for race relations to improve, conversations need to be had at home. We – the parents – need to talk with our kids openly and honestly. We need to ensure we lead by example. Kids learn relations at home.

    While driving the boys home from school yesterday, Joe and Charlie were talking about a classmate. Charlie (in Kindergarten) told Joe that a second grader came to his class today to teach them about grade school. Joe asked the name of the kid, but Charlie didn’t remember. So, Joe began asking questions, “What color hair?” “Was he tall?” “Was his hair curly?” “What color was his skin?”

    It isn’t bad to notice the differences of others – sometimes the differences are so obvious, it becomes awkward trying to ignore it. By the same token, we should not JUDGE based on the differences. And, we should not feel attacked when our differences are noted. We are all different, and that is OK. Let’s just get along – differences and all.

    And remember to teach your kids AT HOME. LEAD by example.

    • Yes, Lenore! It’s okay even important to notice differences – and children teach us that in a less self-conscious way. Isn’t that what we all strive for – to be noticed as at least slightly different?

      Conversations at home are such an important start, but what about the conversations at home that reinforce stereotypes, fear, and hatred? It’s one of those times that I want to be Empress and make all the rules. (Although many might not agree with my rules!)

  3. heidi says:

    I was just over at Deborah’s blog reading about Trayvon. What is going on with us that this is even happening? Now? Today? It’s horrible and doesn’t make sense.
    Thank you for using your voice, for bringing us insight and depth to Charles and your boys’ stories. Truly, thank you.

  4. Oh, the Trayvon Martin story makes me so sad and mad. We talk about social progress all the time. Where is this boy in all of the political discourse?? Thank you for your unique perspective. Erin

    • For me, there are three levels of the story: Mourning the son who was killed, prosecuting the killer, and changing the laws that have made the question of prosecuting fuzzy (for some). Thank you for stopping in.

  5. Thanks for covering this. Every time I hear about Trayvon Martin I get so angry and sad. Such a waste of a life. This kind of thing should not be happening in 2012, or any time for that matter. It is like the civil rights movement never happened.

  6. Erin says:

    I think your post should be widely shared. Besides being beautifully written, it truly highlights the injustice that is routinely faced by young men of color. It deeply saddens me that it is 2012 and this still happens. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thank you so much, Erin. Honestly, I don’t feel at all qualified because the fears I have for my own son and daughter are not nearly as pointed. And while the fears for my students are great, they are not my children. My empathy is a rock in my throat these days, but it’s not the same as living with that every day.

  7. This is poignant commentary, especially as it relates to the Trayvon Martin case. I am also impressed with your instinct to respond to the needs of your students by allowing time to discuss their “first time.” Teaching moments like these tend to be passed up far too often.

    • Especially in a class that size with the form of motivation they had (liked me, liked hanging with their friends), it was the only option. I’m just lucky that I recognized it and was willing to listen. Thank you for commenting (and RTing!).

  8. Anna says:

    i will admit until reading about the trayvon martin case, i never really thought about the risk some teenage boys have just b/c of the color of their skin. the stories from your former students are heartbreaking. it’s like they have a strike against them before the game even gets started.

    • It’s like a form of control, behavior coercion. YOU caused this because YOU were disrespectful. It smacks of blaming women bc of what they wore. And abusive relationships – “Don’t make me hit you!”

      In all cases, we have choices, but they aren’t really OURS. They’ve been applied by whoever has the power in the social relationship.

  9. Kerstin says:

    Wow. I held my breath almost the whole time I read this. The whole story is truly haunting. I really feel for the kids in your class, a terrible thing to even have to expect to be frisked and taken for a criminal, just because of your skin color. What kind of a world is this anymore?

    • It’s disheartening to think that it’s an improvement over many years ago. Like I said, they weren’t angels, but we should all be judged for actions, not appearances or class or other subjective judgments.

  10. Thank you for sharing this. I don’t understand how things like this happen or how this world works. It’s sad and it’s scary.

  11. Hearing about what happened to Trayvon makes me shake my head and say, “what happened? no, surely that’s not right. why would someone do that? how could someone do that?” It’s like my brain refuses to accept that something so senseless and tragic could happen and at the same time, my heart breaks. Great post.

    • Thank you. The more information that comes out, the worse it gets – the more ridiculous it gets. And if this ends up – as it should – in trial, it will probably “come out” that Trayvon was no angel. 98% of teenage boys are not. But it doesn’t matter. In this situation, he was the victim and he deserves justice. And the laws that give violent people an excuse, and police departments the excuse not to arrest, need to be changed.

  12. Paige says:

    So well written. More educators, myself included, need more cultural immersion. I the idea of looking above the eyeline is very interesting. Knowing these types of things could be very empowering for teacher and student.

    • Thank you. It’s true, and not just in this instance. The deference is also true in many cultures outside of the USA as well. Whereas we see looking someone in the eyes as a sign we are seen as equals, others sometimes consider it the highest form of disrespect – especially towards a teacher. Thanks so much for your comment.

  13. lilwhale says:

    Such a heartfelt and necessary post. Thank you for this. As a former middle school teacher who only lasted one year in a “tough” school where I live–I admire you greatly. Not because of your courage–which I know you must have a lot of. But because of your ability to honor your students, and respect them for who they are. To meet them where they were. Me, I had such a hard time getting over my pity for them, their situations, their family life or lack thereof–it was very hard for me to “teach” them. I would cry for them just about every evening I went home. It sounds to me that Charles and all your other students were beyond fortunate to have as a trusted adult in their lives if only for a short time.

    • I think you’re giving me far too much credit – we had tussles too, like in any community. But yes, I saw them as people navigating the same world, but with a different experience. Thank you so much for your comment.

  14. Stacey says:

    This brought tears. I felt like I was in that classroom with you. So well written and so true. love this post.

  15. This reminds me of a post I read recently about how the “new upper middle class” is so isolated from the rest of America. I know that when I moved from teaching in Detroit to a suburb of Seattle, I started to see far fewer African American faces in my classroom. And the experiences are so very different. I taught in elementary school back there, so when I heard about Trayvon Martin, I thought about the sweet little boys in my second and fourth grade classes, and how now they are teenagers just like him. And I don’t want to imagine what can happen to them.

    Thank you for sharing this with those of us who live in our bubbles, away from worlds where cops just randomly frisk teenagers on the sidewalk for having the wrong skin color.

    • We all have bubbles, even the kids in my classes! I think it’s important that we recognize that everyone – even the cops who frisked my students for walking on the wrong sidewalk – has a perspective. Some are just more narrow than others. And sadly, defensiveness and anger and fear on all sides affect how how we see each other and how we react to each other’s actions. Thanks for your caring comment.

  16. christina says:

    😦 ok, i’ve heard of this killing but tend to stay clear of the news b/c i just get too emotionally attached; however, because you told me to read up on the case, i followed your link and picked a couple links from there… 😦 it’s just disgusting.

    your story made me very sad. it was so beautifully written and i really felt so connected with the kids in that classroom, but still, the story is sad and mainly because in 2012 this stuff should NOT still be happening. but it does. and i really don’t see it ever stopping. 😦

    • That’s what is so scary, right? It’s better than years ago, but still horrible. I think about stories like James Byrd in Texas, Amadou Diallo here in the NYC area, as well as Divyendu Sinha here in New Jersey. All men were killed for no reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time – and having a particular race/ethnicity. The worst part is, they are not alone. Thank you so much for your comment, and for clicking on the links!

  17. Ado says:

    What a chilling talk to have to have with those young men.
    Thank goodness for teachers who care, like you. The world needs so many more of them.

    • Thank you so much for saying so. It was a lucky set of circumstances – a combination of my confidence and comfort with them, their trust and comfort with me, having the freedom to stray from the syllabus, and being able to listen without defensiveness. That last one is so hard for all of us, I think.

  18. Great post. The more we talk about profiling to counteract the hate mongers – the better. It seems our country has not progressed since MLK gave his famous speech. Or maybe it has regressed thanks to the all too audible presence of many in radio and TV. And, as Deborah points out in her post, what’s up with all the guns in this country that exacerbates the profiling. Thanks for writing about it. One voice at a time.

    • I have to believe that it *is* better than the 1960s, and – just as with the overall crime rate – we just hear about it more. I don’t watch the nightly news anymore, so I would never have heard about it without Twitter. And boy do I feel odd admitting that I get most of my news from Twitter!

  19. Abby says:

    Such a powerful post. Your students were lucky to have you. A trusted sounding board may have been all it took to keep Charles on the straight and narrow. Kudus.

  20. Miranda says:

    I’m a bit in awe of your post. I’ve heard about similar things happening (by way of a news story or talk show), but the way you wrote it made me feel like I was learning about it for the first time. It’s so sad to me that teenagers would have to be taught how to act, dress, or look at someone so that they don’t appear as a ‘threat.’ Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you so much for that comment! I think it’s true for a lot of people, but not as over-reaching and complete as with Black men in the USA, young men in particular. We all “dress to impress” in different ways, but it’s usually a choice, not a necessary coercion. It’s behavior control, really.

  21. Andee Eve Flynn says:

    Amazing post. You took me back to my teaching days when I taught “at risk kids.”. How I loved those kids. Thank you for sharing this. Great writing, great story.

  22. So heartbreaking. And something I truly find incomprehensible – I just can’t wrap my mind around hate for the sake of nothing more than skin, or gender or sexual orientation or any other thing that has no bearing on character. This whole thing breaks my heart.

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  24. Rachel says:

    I clicked on only one of those links from the list, and haven’t stopped crying all morning. Sometimes life is too sad.

    • I’m sorry to have made you sad, Mama. And it’s pretty horrible. At first I just thought about his parents – because they didn’t even KNOW where he was for the first days. The police never bothered to connect the missing person with the person killed. And it happened in the same complex!

      Now I’m all about the legislation changing and helping to adjust perspective. Fear is an even more powerful drug when mixed with prejudice and hate. Senseless. Senseless.

      • Rachel says:

        Oh don’t be sorry, I’m so grateful there are people like you out there trying to educate and advocate for the changes needed. Much love, sister-friend.

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  26. As fellow teacher (8th grade ELA), many of my students are on their way to being the Charles that you describe. This week, two of my kids were busted for possession of marijuana on school premises. I wish they knew what it was REALLY like out there. I don’t doubt for a moment that some of them really DO have tough lives. I’ve seen their records. But our community is comparatively sheltered here, and any who claim to “go hard” have no idea what REAL societal challenges are. They don’t have to worry here about being frisked at the basketball courts. I wish they understood better what it’s really like out there, that they understood that there are kids like Charles out there who have to change demeanor and personality as a way of survival.

    And now we have Trayvon, this young boy who was in no way trying to fit himself into some stereotype of what my kids think the whole of White America sees when they look at them. I wish my kids could make a connection and really SEE. I tried, and I know that for some it sunk in. But for the others who really needed to hear it — in one ear and out the other.

    “You drop the toughness for a bowed head and open hands.” It’s a whole new form of slave mentality, isn’t it?

    This post moved me to tears. Thank you so much for commenting on my blog so that I could follow you back and find yours.

    JW Moxie @

    • That’s exactly it – it’s behavioral control. You picked out one of the lines that came more easily to me, actually. It’s so clear. It’s one of the reasons I responded so strongly to Geraldo Rivera’s commentary. Isn’t that what we tell women too? Don’t dress that way to so OTHERS won’t behave wrongly?

      If you think they’ll respond positively, feel free to share this with your students.

      • Thank you for this. I think that if I pull a few of them into a small group setting and read this with them, it will sink in at a level that I can’t reach when they have a whole class as an audience to the image they’re trying to project. I can only hope….

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