By any measure, it’s been a momentous summer. The triumph of gay marriage rights: a definitive national validation of the individual’s right to love whom they choose and to be included in the fabric of mainstream America.
Yet at the same time, another kind of fabric was removed: the Confederate flag — a symbol of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy — was finally lowered in South Carolina. And I would be remiss if I did not mention the appearance of catastrophic meteorological events like the drought in California, and of course, the Trump-nado.
Jokes aside, I wholeheartedly agree with Superintendent Linda Yonke’s hopeful assertion that there exists “a new commitment from people of all races to question the status quo and [to] challenge new and old policies and laws that limit opportunities for many.”
Yet I can’t help but think about Michael Brown, as we watch events unfold in Ferguson and other cities just after the 1-year anniversary of his death. A recent piece on the radio show, This American Life, echoes my feelings that so much more needs to be done. Please listen with me to this retrospective by New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones.
“I was watching the coverage of Michael Brown almost a year ago, like the rest of America. There was one moment that I could not get out of my head, it’s news footage of his mother, Lesley McSpadden, right after he was killed.”
Lesley McSpadden: “This was wrong, and it was cold-hearted.”
Crowd Member 1: “It was.”
Crowd Member 2: “Louder.”
Crowd Member 3: “No justice, no peace.”
Lesley McSpadden: “Cold-hearted.”
Nikole Hannah: “She’s standing in a crowd of onlookers a few feet where her son was shot down, where he would lie face down on the concrete for four hours, dead. And this is what she says:
“You took my son away from me. Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many!”
Nikole Hannah: “I watched this over and over. A police officer has just killed her oldest child. It has to be the worst moment of her life.
But of all the ways she could have expressed her grief and outrage, this is what was on her mind — school, getting her son through school.”
I think that Michael Brown’s mom was expressing a very American hope that education can transform and even save lives. And, if I may take her words to heart, I would like to say that every one of us, educators, in this auditorium, can be the agents of that change if we simply decide, as Assistant Superintendent Tim Hayes wrote, “to talk about race… to stop being color blind and instead become color brave.”
Case in point: my youngest daughter, Kira, who is starting college this year, couldn’t have been more apolitical. Yet, last Fall, she insisted I take a personal day to drive with her down to Ferguson, Missouri. Why? So that she could see, with her own eyes (and camera), beyond the media images of burning cars and angry faces. She was forever changed by that experience. And a social justice activist was born.
As the media continue to bicker over the details of Michael Brown’s shooting and murder, I have heard them pose simplistic questions like, “did he really have his hands up?”
Let me be so bold as to say (a) I don’t really care, and (b) it’s simply the wrong question. Instead, we might pose for our students a different question like, “why isn’t there a federal database of fatal police shootings?” It just doesn’t exist, and thankfully a few dedicated journalists have taken it upon themselves to painstakingly compile this data.
So I want to focus specifically on the topic of race, not because it’s trending in the news, but because here at New Trier, I would argue that it’s a subject that many of us feel somewhat uncomfortable discussing, despite the very best intentions to do right by the subject. And of course, it’s more complicated than black and white, though I would argue that this particular divide qualifies as our most acute and historically significant.
We are a racialized society. Race is all around us, and we often act as if we don’t notice it, much like in the parable writer David Foster Wallace told at a commencement address a decade ago. It goes like this:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
THIS is water. Let’s analyze the water we swim in each and every day of the school year.
These graphs are not meant to indict, but simply to illuminate the silent messages we send, as an institution, on a daily basis, to our students. These are uncomfortable truths that we should confront and discuss, together.
In the newsletter, Associate Superintendent Paul Sally cited an educational framework which includes collaboration, connection, and adaptability, among other crucial skills: “it calls for the development of agile and diverse thinkers”. How will our students adapt to the current and coming changes in American society unless we accept the challenge, as Linda put it, of becoming “a racially just school”?
Let me be clear: we have a chance to be on the right side of history for our students. This is not indoctrination; instead, this is exposing young minds to what they already hunger for, a wider range of options, in every discipline.
While Paul #1 provides us with a strategy, Paul #2 (Waechtler, for those of you counting the Pauls) reminds us that “culture is fundamentally more important and harder to change than strategy.” But I want to emphasize that you, in the audience, ARE the culture of New Trier. If you don’t create it on a daily basis, then no number of Martin Luther King seminar days will make a long-standing difference in our students’ lives….
In her newsletter piece, Principal Denise Dubravec wistfully wrote, “As educators, we seldom know the post script to our students’ stories”, but at this moment, we have a critical opportunity to help shape those stories. Think about how you might contribute to the MLK seminar day in some small or large way. And remind yourself that you’re not alone: your talented colleagues and leaders, and the Equity Team will support your risk-taking, which is a defining characteristic of New Trier culture. Let’s illuminate our challenges as a school and allow our students to see us, and help us, struggle. Let’s continue to be a Lighthouse District!
Because as we begin our school year, ask yourself, “why did I become an educator?” Is it really just about solving math problems, compiling vocabulary lists, and recalling the War of 1812? I would argue that it’s because you want to transform, and yes, save lives. To make the world a better place. As Lily Eskelsen Garcia, President of the NEA told her members, “In your hearts, you know you’re all social justice warriors!”