Something that routinely occurs with many teachers is the need to reflect on how our observations and experiences relate to our roles in educating children. The highly publicized murders of seven individuals over the last 4 days were tragic for many, but especially for their families and all of those who felt a connection to those gentlemen. I did not know Philando Castille, but I felt a connection with him because he was an African American man that works with school children. While it was very poignant to see the outpouring of support and love for Mr. Castile by those who knew him as their cafeteria manager, I was particularly saddened by the need for parents and others to explain to children why they would not see this individual when they returned to school in the fall. Mr. Castile’s school is currently on summer break, but provided a message on their website showing their love and support for this gentleman, and provided a contact number for counseling if any parent noticed changes in their child’s behavior once they became aware of his untimely death. Even when children are not under our care, we (educators) feel a need to protect them.
As I read about and saw the connection between Mr. Castile’s death and the fear associated with an African American man and a (legally owned) gun, I was reminded of an encounter with a student immediately after Christmas break. “Andrew” excitedly told me that one of his gifts was a BB gun from his parents. I did not share in his excitement. I couldn’t help it — my first reaction was anger. After the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice by police officers, I wondered what African American parent in their right would consider giving their child a BB gun?! I was also (unfairly) angry with the young man. I wanted to tell him that he shouldn’t celebrate receiving the type of gift that played a role in another child losing his life. How could he be excited about such a thing? I wanted to tell him how he would be seen differently because he’s a black child, and that minor mistakes in his behavior would result in harsher treatment because of his race. I wanted to tell him that he should celebrate his blackness because others will be critical of it. I wanted to remind him of the need to always be above reproach in his actions since he wouldn’t have as much leeway as some of his peers. I wanted to remind him that society wasn’t always fair, and that he should use that knowledge as motivation to always do his best. I wanted him to know that his “harmless” behavior could easily be interpreted by others as threatening. I wanted him to know that he’d always be required to do more in order to increase his chances of being seen in the same light as others who weren’t black.
I wanted to have “the talk.” The talk is a conversation shared between many African American parents and their children, especially sons, in an effort to promote hard(er) work from their sons and daughters, and in an effort to keep them safe. I had the talk with my father, and countless numbers of African Americans have, and will continue to have such conversations with their children. After calming down I accepted how it wasn’t my responsibility to give him that burden, and it’s a heavy one that he and others will eventually carry. While we want our children to have an existence that’s free from the invisible strain of being seen and treated differently based on skin color, many parents would see it as irresponsible to have their children unaware of the challenges they may face because of race. Yes, we want them to have the freedom to engage in activities that are ultimately classified as youthful mistakes – like using a BB gun in Colorado Springs – we also we want them to live. No, I would never consider having this conversation with one of my white, male students, and I assume their parents don’t feel a similar need. There isn’t a need. Fortunately for many of them, they’ll never have such a burden. A friend in Canada texted the other day to see if my family and I were doing okay. He always thinks we’re on the verge of a civil war. I replied that we were fine, and also said I was happy that I didn’t have a son. He agreed. If I have less worry as the parent of an African American daughter, it’s fair to say that many parents have additional worries concerning their African American sons.
At times I’ve questioned if my initial anger and worry concerning a student’s BB gun Christmas gift were unfounded. However, my mind always replays the various headlines of African American men and boys being killed because law enforcement wrongly assumed their toy guns were real. Mr. Castile went through the process to lawfully carry a real gun, and by all accounts he did his best to inform law enforcement of that fact. He still lost his life. This is not an anti-gun or anti-police post. This post is very pro-life. I want my students to live. I want them to experience the freedom that results from the innocence and naivety of childhood, but I don’t want them in situations that would endanger their young lives. I lament the fact that many of them will eventually receive “the talk” from their parents. It’s sad because it signifies a loss of innocence concerning their environment. For some, the talk will occur after their child questions why they were called a certain name, or when another child (unknowingly) relays instructions from parents stating that they can’t be friends because of their race. Busted!
It’s very likely that Mr. Castile’s death will spark such conversations among many students and their families who knew him from Hill Montessori School. While some parents will feel the need to sanitize what occurred in an effort to protect their children, others will see the importance of sharing the harsh truth of why their child will no longer see “Mr. Phil” in the cafeteria. Ironically, it’ll be for the same reason…to protect their children.