“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.