Last week a man was asked by police to leave a Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt store in Kirkland, Washington. He had been in the store for a while and hadn’t ordered anything. He made the two employees nervous and they called the cops. Turns out here was there for work. He’s a court supervisor and was supervising a court-sanctioned outing between a mother and her son. Which is why he didn’t order anything and was sitting in Menchie’s. Would you like to guess his race? He’s Black. Would you like to guess the race of the 2 employees? They’re White.
Here’s how Byron Ragland, the court-supervisor who was escorted out of Menchies by the police reacted:
“You want to stand up for yourself, as a man, or as someone who was just doing his job, and say ‘hey, this isn’t right,’ ” he said. “But in the moment I’m thinking: ‘I’m a black man, and If I start emoting, I might not walk out of here.’ And so you rationalize to yourself: ‘What’s the big deal, it’s just Menchie’s, just leave.’ But then later, you realize that you gave in — that you consented that this is the way it’s going to be, to always be.’
“Living this kind of mental life will drive a person insane,” he added.
And as you are reading, ask yourself if he could have been one of your students (he could have). And could a parallel situation have happened to one of your 4th graders, or 7th graders, or 11th graders (it could). And then ask yourself if that student of yours would have told you about it and how you would have reacted.
For me, this story brings up a reaction that I had to Julie Reulbach’s keynote at Twitter Math Camp last summer. Julie eloquently brought up the countless ways that teachers are maligned by non-educators. I absolutely agree. She argues that student engagement shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of their teachers. I also absolutely agree. And yet, as math teachers (who I believe most people reading my blog are), we have to build relationships with our students so that we have ways to talk with them about what it feels like to grow up in the world in their skin. Because that unengaged student of color sitting in my classroom may very well have had numerous experiences just like the one which Byron Ragland had as a grown man.
And as a teacher, while I can’t ultimately prevent this from happening, I can have deep relationships with my students so that they will confide in me. Trust me with their truth. And trust me to be a white ally as best I can.
The other day as students were walking into my class, one asked if he could speak to me privately. Once the rest of the class was underway on their warm up, we stood in the doorway. He confided in me that he and some friends had tried vaping and he wanted someone to know. He was nearly in tears because it felt so good to tell an adult whom he trusted. He repeated over and over, “It just feels so good to tell you. It just feels so good that someone knows.”
Student engagement IS my responsibility, and my work has to involve supporting students as they experience their world both inside and outside of school. Their engagement so often is unrelated to the quality of my math lesson. Many are facing countless challenges at home, with friends and out in the world. I know this is part of what Julie was saying. And that we can reach out to them so many times and there will still be issues facing teens that all of our best intentions can’t overcome.
And yet, part of my job HAS to be building and supporting my students as they grow up and become a greater part of the fabric of their world. A white student of mine may go on to become an employee in a frozen yogurt shop who calls the police because he/she feels nervous about the black man in the shop who is using his phone and hasn’t ordered anything.
And while I can’t walk in the shoes of a black student of mine, to know how it feels, I try to always assume that an unengaged student is one who I can work to make deeper connections with, to learn more, share more, and hope that I can become that teacher where, “It just feels so good to tell you. It just feels so good that someone knows.” And while that is part of my work with students of all races, it feels especially important with students whose race is different from mine. THAT is part of my work as a white ally.
Because “Living this kind of mental life will drive a person insane.”
There is some reaction happening in Seattle. Here is a second article explaining the police department’s apology.
What I hope is that the cops who escorted a black man out of a yogurt shop for simply doing his job will return to that shop to have an equally serious conversation with the two white women who called them in fear. We all need to talk more about race and our implicit bias. People’s lives (literally) depend on it.