Friday, December 12, 2014

In Honor of December 13: Young Black Men

I can't make it to Washington, DC on December 13 to march for justice. This is my contribution to that cause.

Over the past nine years, I have gotten to know over 100 young black men. Let me tell you about a few of them.

"M" stands out in my mind. He was very tall and very dark-skinned, and he had a Muslim surname. I was a substitute teacher, and he was a high school freshman surrounded by his buddies. We locked horns. He got angry and shouted right in my face. (I can't remember what he said. He didn't curse.) I just blinked at him and wrote him up. Never raised my voice. After that, I had a private conference with "M." I told him, "You know, you're a born leader. You have presence. You should put it to good use." We were fast friends after that. He graduated a few years back and went to college.

"A" wanted to be a poet. He asked me to teach him how to write poetry. I said he probably was already doing it right, and he admitted he had a box of poems he'd written that he had hidden under his bed. He showed them to me. I typed them up for him and stored them in a file. "A" always had a smile on his face. He had big soulful eyes and had had a brush with the law. One day after he graduated, he returned to school and told me to delete his poems. He had embraced an austere sort of Christianity that lifted his soul but did nothing to his smile. He stopped by my room this past October, just to say hello. He's almost done four years of study at a Maryland Bible college.

"D" was in the performing arts program at my school. Since he already knew some poems, we registered him for a program called Poetry Out Loud. "D" would come to practice after school if he felt like it, but he would never take my advice. I told him, "You speak too fast. Your words aren't distinct." He did it his way. We went to the competition, and he was eliminated in the first round. His father, who had come to see it, glared at me as we got on the bus to return to school. After that, "D" never spoke to me again.

"S" was a jock. While in school he scored over 1,000 points as a power forward on the basketball team. I could get no work from him at all. He mocked me at every turn, gnawed at the edges of disrespect without crossing the line, and played shamelessly to his basketball buddies, who were all in class with him. I was probably the only teacher in the school who didn't congratulate him when he made his 1000th point. I have no idea where he is now.

"J" was in my class as a freshman and again as a sophomore. He was extremely serious and had a soft voice. He wasn't the best student I ever had, but he worked hard and turned in all his assignments. He seemed aggravated by his rowdier classmates. By the middle of sophomore year, I said it felt like he was my son or something, I had seen him grow so much. He hasn't even graduated yet, but this soft-spoken, lovely young fellow is working at Wegman's grocery store. Last week he rang up my order, and I got to introduce him to my husband.

"A" was also an athlete. He kept falling asleep in class. Finally I called his house and got his dad on the phone. I said to the dad, "I come in to the cafeteria for breakfast duty every day, and 'A' is already there ... at 7:00 in the morning. He's not getting enough sleep." The dad said, "I had no idea he had to get up that early. I work night shift."You see, "A" lives far from the school and has to take a bus at 6:15. Can you imagine a teenage boy having to get up that early? I still see him every day in the cafeteria. He plays his music too loud. I worry about his hearing. Those earbuds are no good.

"K" was highly intelligent and intensely competitive. He wanted to be valedictorian and was already planning for it as a freshman. His mother was a helicopter parent who hovered so close you could feel her wind in your hair. "K" was excitable and enthusiastic about everything he read and did. He brought energy into the classroom. As a junior he transferred to our sister campus. I haven't seen him since.

"T" is extremely overweight, to the point where he can hardly get around. Still he comes to school every day and struggles away to keep things in order, to get his assignments done, to get work in on time, to perform at the level at which the other students perform. He seems half out of breath all the time. I worry about him. I don't think I've ever seen him smile.

"D" is in my home room. He ran track this fall. He writes in a notebook every morning while the other students do silent reading. He's never shown me what he writes. He always has a pleasant word when I see him in the hall.

"C" comes to class late, doesn't turn in his assignments, comes to tutoring late, asks to go to the bathroom every day, and enjoys cutting up in class. He told me he has never read a whole book in his life. He's in tenth grade. I've asked the guidance counselor to arrange a meeting with his mother.

"T" is angry at the world. He won't do any school work. He just sits and glares. I suppose he must have problems with some of his other teachers, because he is often in detention. When "T" doesn't look furious, he looks abjectly miserable. No amount of encouragement seems to rouse him.

Another "T" is soft-spoken but remarkably observant and candid. He's in my Honors class. Earlier this year he took a standardized test, and his math score was college level. He also reads at college level. I saw him this afternoon, playing volleyball in the gym. The phys ed teacher and I agreed that if the planet was comprised solely of people like "T," the world would be heavenly.

Do you get the picture? These young black men are young men. They are just like other young men their age. Except for one thing: They're far more likely to be considered a threat, far more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police. Why? They're people. What exactly are we overlooking here?


Stacy said...

Did you see Raven Symone on Oprah when she said she wasn't African American, she was American? Racism is something I've never been able to understand. We're all the same. We're all living, breathing people.

Thank you for this post, Anne.

yellowdoggranny said...

prpbably my favorite post of yours..

Anne Johnson said...

Truthfully, most African Americans have been in the US longer than the white people. Africans started arriving in the 1600s. How fair is it that someone who moved here from Germany after WWII is just plain "American?"

Stacy said...

Yes! Thank you! If you were born here, if you're a citizen, you are American. I'm not called Irish-American or German-American. I'm not labeled by the places my ancestors came from. It's such a weird label.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

What exactly are we overlooking? White guilt, racism and fear. This unjust state of affairs is about us, not them. As your mini-portraits portray so well, they are just young men like all young men.