Battlefield

We’re still in that place where they look at me like we’re on a battlefield. Today is the second time we’re seeing each other. Although I taught about half of the students in this class last year, even they seem to have taken a few steps back. We’re in that place again where I have to show them what I’ve got. I respect that.

I give each student a folder that contains the weekly sheet for do now and exit question responses, a log for word of the day, and a daily slip that lists the aim of the lesson, the definition of the day’s word, the habit of mind we will be using in the lesson, the materials and resources we will have at our disposal, and the expected outcome or product. These are housekeeping matters, which will become routine in a matter of days. What’s the do now question? Can someone please share a sentence using today’s word? What habit of the mind are we using today? Why is this helpful? Why is it important to ask questions?

“Would anyone like to share a response to the do now question?” I ask.

A few students let me know they would like to say something. One shifts from side to side. Another puts up a couple of uncertain fingers. A girl in the back raises one hand while still writing with the other. Of course, there is the student who perks up in her seat and says, “Me! Me! Can I share?” She’s one of the students I had taught last year.

“It means not having a voice in what happens to you.”

“It mean you don’t got the same rights as, like, everyone else. Like white people.”

“Being black mean somebody’s always gonna be suspicious about you.”

“It’s like people always be assuming shit about you that ain’t even true.”

This is my ELA Regents prep class: Black in America.

I ask students to open their folders and take out the slips of paper in the right-hand pocket.  Some look puzzled; some don’t care; a couple nod.

“Did anyone get a familiar name?” I ask.

“Yea,” J says. “Trayvon Martin.”

“Sean Bell.”

“Eric Garner.”

“So, who do you think the others are?”

“Other black people killed by the police.”

For a moment, every kid is looking at me, each holding a slip of paper with the name of a murdered black man, or boy.

The last of perhaps too many pieces is a seven-page packet that contains everything students will need to complete this mini project. I explain that today they will use the Internet to gather background information for their respective case studies. I tell them that by the end of the class, they should have completed the first two parts of the packet. In the first part, they are asked to create a collage using photographs of the victim. In the second, they are to record information about the victim and the circumstances of the murder. I also ask them to explain how they choose their sources and why they consider them credible.

By the time I lock my classroom door behind the last student and make my way upstairs to the computer lab, every kid is in front of a computer, a couple already looking through images of lost lives. The next forty minutes are magical. No one asks what time class is over. Not one student needs to be redirected. Not a single one has taken out a phone or buried her head in her bag pretending to look for something while typing a text message. Some are watching videos, some are printing photographs, some are leaning over to share stories, some are writing, some are helping others find the right printer. It’s like I’m not even there anymore. Except:

“Hey, Maryam, this shit is crazy. He ain’t even done nothing wrong.”

“Maryam, I can’t find no pictures of this dude. What am I supposed to do?”

“Write about it.”

“About what? That there’s no pictures?” He is smug, and a couple of kids laugh.

“Sure,” I say. “Write about what it means that you can’t find any pictures of an innocent black man who was killed by a white cop. What does it tell you that there isn’t a single picture of him?”

“Nobody don’t care about him. It’s like he don’t even exist.”

“Maryam, come look at this.”

“Maryam, why I never seen this on the news?”

“Hey, Maryam, what if I can’t find the date?”

“When was this article written?”

“January 13, 2012. But it don’t say when he got killed.”

“Read the second paragraph.”

“Oh, yea, it says two days ago.”

My teacher clock tells me what the red digits on the wall confirm—that it is time to bring students’ attention to the exit question. I had planned to ask them to write about the most powerful image they had found and why they found it powerful. I still want to know, but decide that I will ask them to write their answers tomorrow because right now, in this moment, no one remembers that this is a Regents prep class we are supposed to dislike or fear. No one cares that it’s time to go to the next class, or maybe even to the bathroom. The closer we get to the end of class, the more animated, engrossed and vocal they become. M is pouring words all over the page in part three of the packet. Who am I to stop this with an exit question?

They look at me on their way out of the computer lab.

Just like that, within an hour, although still on a battlefield, we are now standing on the same side. It is a precarious trust, to be tested for days, maybe weeks to come, but it is there nonetheless. Now to win this war and bring about peace.

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