7 — A Case for Education

In the midst of the Presidential Election, the topics of gun violence, criminal justice reform, and education has been on my mind, and I want to re-post something I wrote in my first year teaching. This was written during the Freddie Grey tragedy, when the public finally heard the outcry of thousands of Baltimore City youth.

May 1, 2015

“You sound like a white person right now. You have no idea, I was BEAT down with a baton. The cops raided my house, beat my cousins and me with a baton. They punched and kicked us. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

This was the response I got when I began a discussion about peaceful protests and non-violence in my 11th grade classroom. This was not what I expected. These words have stuck with me since then, and it made me come to a certain reality that I had never known. This student was right, I had no idea what I was talking about. I wanted to preach the good word of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about non-violent protests, about remaining peaceful to get your message across, and I wanted my students to believe it. But deep down, I didn’t understand and I couldn’t even believe it myself. My tongue was a stranger to me. It took many days to process everything that had been happening in my new home city. What put things into perspective for me wasn’t the news or the interviews or even the community members here, it was my students and their narratives.

I was walking by Hopkins one night and the police pulled me over, I was by myself. They asked me if I broke into a car and I said ‘no’ and they kept asking. Even the Hopkins security said I wasn’t with the other group, I was by myself. But the man grabbed me, harassed me, jacked me up, he was all in my face. It was embarrassing, I started crying and they just laughed. It was embarrassing. They had me there for hours. The Baltimore police are ****ed up, they so ****ed up. Baltimore is so crazy, you will run into the police any time. One time, I was walking through Patterson Park with my friends. We were just walking. We got pulled over, 5 of us. I asked “why did you pull us over?” and they couldn’t give us an explanation. I just kept saying “why you pull us over, is it cause we’re black?” They held us there on the curb for two hours, took pictures of us, and we didn’t even do anything. — 11th Grade

People feel as though the police aren’t doing their job and the mayor wasn’t really taking care of the problem. People yell F the police. But say if someone robs you or kills a friend with you around, then who would you call, right? So people didn’t really have a choice but to look up to them (the police) because there’s no way you could call a regular citizen to come and help you, you have to call 911. The media make black people look bad because they show the bad and not the good. All blacks are savages, you can’t blame all blacks because of a small group of blacks. A group of people are making individuals black folks look bad. Their violence will not solve anything, violence will lead to more violence. I’ve seen cars blow up, people shooting people, eyes filled with rage; a lot of stuff going on. I had the police abuse me, try to slam me, try to choke me out. — 11th Grade

I feel like the actions of my peers were just. We have always been looked upon as animals or thugs as our own mayor said. We have always been content to areas of poverty forcing us to try to find new ways to get out. -11th Grade

“I think that the kids should not destroy the places where people work and live. They are really messing up because at the end of the day, we have to pay for all of the things that they destroyed with the taxes our parents pay. Many families struggle because the kids have destroyed their stores now. How are they supposed to take care of their kids? So now people are struggling because of these kids. But then they shouldn’t have done what they did. The police should not be killing kids. Police need to be sure before they shoot. They are doing this riot because when we use words, people don’t pay attention to us, so when they did these riots, we got their attention.” — 9th Grade

The police are killing kids and they are not going to jail for it. The police killed Freddie Gray so the kids are messing up Baltimore. I agree with the riots because the kids are so sick of the police killing kids. — 9thGrade

If the police are able to murder African American people and get away with it, then African Americans should defend themselves. All of us aren’t thugs, the media portray us that way. I think the riot is pointless because the verdict hasn’t come out yet. I think they should have blown up the police station instead and I don’t think Freddie was 100% innocent, but he didn’t deserve it. This is making blacks look worse now. — 9th Grade

I am tired, angry, and frustrated. And as sad as I am to admit this, I am guilty, guilty for being a part of America’s broken institutions. I am tired of waiting for justice to be served. I am tired of watching my students give up on hope. I am tired of watching my students feel helpless, because I constantly hear them say “no one is going to do anything about it anyway” and “no one listens to us.” I’m tired of people blaming these kids for their own problems saying “they’re tearing down their community” and “do they think stealing will change anything” and especially calling them “thugs” and “criminals.” I’m tired of complaints and critiques but no real solution to help build their neighborhoods. And I am SO DAMN TIRED of those who are so quick to point fingers, to say these are black people being black people and not fully understanding the reasons behind their pain. They’re doing what generations before them were afraid to do; they’re rebelling, they’re fighting back. We can all agree that violence and destruction may not be the solution, but destruction isn’t the issue… the endless oppression and brutality that led them to this is.

No one is listening to these young people and that is why they are acting out. This is their way of communicating, this is the only way they know how. It’s easy for outsiders to look in and pass judgment on what they think these communities should and shouldn’t do. But white people and non-Black people of color will never understand the struggle of a black man in these communities. The small minority that engaged in riots, that released their anger and let their frustrations go at the expense of others are not representative of the amazing children that represent Baltimore altogether. The young people rioting in Baltimore, the kids looting and engaging in “criminal” activities… they are the product of our broken institutions who have failed these kids. We are to blame.

The conversation should not be “why are these kids tearing down their own communities?” or “they’re thugs for looting and rioting.” The conversation should be “how can we fix this broken system and hold our authorities more accountable for what is happening to citizens?” and “what can we do to educate kids, to get these kids back on track and believing again, not just in the people around them, but in themselves.” America’s priority should be bringing justice to those who have been victims of police brutality. We need a change in the policing system, our entire system for that matter. We talk about “a few bad apples,” but there are hundreds of incidents hidden under a massive blanket, unspoken of and out of the media spotlight. What happens to those victims? What happens to our students who have been harassed and beat up by local authorities? What happens to their justice? This is beyond a few incidents, a few “bad apples” in our police departments. This is a result of the unjust system that was built on the foundation of lies, racism, and terror.

When I published this post (on my old WordPress), I was a first year teacher in Baltimore City, teaching 9th and 11th grade English. I was struggling between classroom management, lesson planning, creating materials, buying my own materials, grading, meetings, writing IEPs, and preparing for the worse. I never thought I had to add decades of emotional trauma due to institutionalized racism to my curriculum. Reflecting back on the last four years, it is clear that things have changed… for the worse. The deplorable results of the 2016 Presidential Election not only left us with uncertainty and hopelessness, it also paved way for years of obscured racism and microaggressions to finally surface and become blatant, especially by those who have been emboldened by DJT. These are the despairing truths that lie subtly beneath our policies, and I can only hope that whoever steps into that oval office next has a plan to rebuild our children and their communities.

I’ve heard numerous candidates talk about their ideas of reform, promising to restore what DJT has dismantled in the last four years. What I’ve yet to see is how their ideas of reform in one area of policy will affect another. All issues are connected. When we discuss education reform, we must also consider criminal justice reform and gun control, aspects that many of our students encounter in their daily lives. When we discuss education reform, we must also consider immigration reform and the public health issues that plague our communities. How can we expect students to learn and grow when they’re simply just trying to survive each day?

In reflecting on my first year teaching and looking ahead to the 2020 Presidential Election, I’m sadden by the fact that not much has changed, not for the lives of youth all across America who are living in poverty, surrounded by crime and gun violence, and for those who are currently separated from their families in various detention centers. It would be a lie if I said I was hopeful that things will change with this next election. But what I am sure about is that change starts at the local level. Change starts with grassroots organizing and working with people in our communities. Change starts with you and me. So despite my apathy in our current politics, I am determined to do what’s in my power to make the necessary changes in the spaces that I occupy whether it’s my classroom, my school, or my community.

America, I’m coming home.

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"Writing is really a way of thinking — not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet." - T.M.

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Jessica Phan

Jessica Phan

"Writing is really a way of thinking — not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet." - T.M.

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