A Teacher’s Thoughts on the Spring Valley High Video

I awoke early on my first day, nervous but excited. After driving an hour through the beautiful rural North Carolina landscape dotted with countless tobacco fields and dilapidated old barns, I walked into one of the most intimidating situations I’ve ever been in. I was a fresh-faced, twenty-three year old white woman, determined to do something meaningful with my life. I was going to do more than strive for money and success. I was going to inspire young people.

I was going to teach high school mathematics.

To say that my students were unimpressed with their new teacher would be an understatement. I tried to make up for my inexperience by having loads of enthusiasm for my subject, but after several weeks of begging students to quiet down and give me their attention, I was starting to regret my decision. I have countless stories from that first year and almost all of them involve some variation of a student misbehaving in a small way, me asking him or her to stop, and the situation escalating to a full blown confrontation. I couldn’t maintain control of my classroom and the students knew it.

Twelve years later, I sit alone in my living room and watch the video of the young girl from Spring Valley High in Columbia, SC, being pulled out of her desk by a school police officer. I watch it over and over and over. I can’t get the image out of my mind. I don’t know what to say. It’s brutal. It’s inhuman. It’s indefensible.


While the massacre in Charleston earlier this year affected me deeply, this video has shaken me to the core.

As a high school teacher, I spend a ton of time with teenagers. I have the privilege of seeing them at their best and at their worst. I see the kid with ADHD who can barely sit still after lunch and I see the girl who just had a fight with her best friend. Teenagers are complex—they can be happy, frustrated, bored, sad, lonely, hyper, angry, insecure, and on and on. It’s no wonder that tempers flare at times, but what we can never forget is that they are children. They may look fully-grown, and heaven knows many of them think they are, but they are not.

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Teaching is a messy business. Contrary to what most people think, teaching isn’t really about the content. It’s not about equations, or verbs, or parts of a cell. Teaching, or better yet, learning is about the exchange that happens between teacher and student. In order for that exchange to happen, there needs to be a relationship between teacher and student. Each needs to trust and respect the other. I didn’t understand that my first year (or three) and was constantly surprised at the behavior of my students. I expected them to sit quietly in their seats, obediently raise their hand when they had a question, and generally play the role of model students. Instead, my students were rowdy, unprepared for class, and wholly uninterested in algebra and geometry.

Around year four of my career, something clicked for me. I realized that my job—teaching mathematics to a room full of teenagers—isn’t actually about me. It isn’t about my wonderful lesson plans or my overall pass rate for end-of-course tests. Instead, my job is actually about my students. These incredibly complex teenagers who I spend so many of my waking hours with, are souls that have infinite value. They are not actors playing a scripted part, but instead are individuals with fears and dreams, insecurities and interests. They come into my classroom with a backstory that inevitably effects how they perceive and understand what happens inside that classroom. It is a privilege and a joy to cultivate a relationship with them that will allow us to go about the business of learning algebra and geometry.

I don’t know everything that happened in that classroom at Spring Valley High. There will no doubt be much speculation over the days and weeks to come about what the young girl did or didn’t do, what the teacher should have done, etc. I do know that there have been moments in my own teaching career that I would like a chance to do over. There have been times, while feeling frustrated, angry, and disrespected by a student, that I allowed my own response to escalate a situation. I know there was a better way to handle those moments and, thankfully, I have learned from those experiences. I hope and pray that all of us who work in education will remember that the students we stand in front of day in and day out are someone’s sons and daughters. They deserve our very best. Surely we can treat them with the respect and dignity we would want for our own children.

To My Fellow White Christians, Hear My Plea

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I am not an activist.

I do not protest or boycott or wave signs in front of the courthouse. I have absolutely no desire to read political blogs or engage in debates with people who cling to labels and find their identity in promoting ’causes.’ I do not consider myself to be harsh or dogmatic and, as such, have always resisted the divisive nature of politics.

I am a Christian and I have been utterly changed by the gospel. And as I look at myself and other southern, white, gospel-loving people I am saddened by what seems to be a continued lack of concern for our black brothers and sisters.

The gospel is about love– the love of the Father in making a way for us to be reconciled to him. It’s about the love of the Son as he came and lived among us and then died to claim us as his own. The gospel is about unmerited grace, forgiveness of sins, and putting all the wrong things right again. This is not a gospel of fear. This is not a gospel of self-protection. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not call us to constantly replay in our minds all the bad things that could happen to us if we reach out to those who desperately need us. No, the gospel calls us to die to ourselves– to do things that appear foolish to the world. The gospel calls us to reach out to others and actively work for their good.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58: 6-8)

I have given myself a pass for far too long when it comes to ignoring the difficult things of this world. “My life is so hard already,” I say. Raising two small children who are determined to zap the life force right out of me seems like a good excuse. Plus, I need to spend time with my husband and let’s not forget that I have a very demanding job. There just isn’t the time, energy, or interest left over for me to care about anything beyond my little life.

Systemic problems like the mass incarceration of young black men or the still-present disparity in educational opportunities for so many poor students and students of color are issues that have existed for years. These are things that I do not even know how to begin to think about. And so I don’t.

I just don’t think about them.

I do not own these as my problems or admit that I have any role in finding their solutions. All these years I have willingly worn the blinders that my station in life affords me. These “whiteness blinders” have always been there, focusing my attention on things that society tells me are inevitable, and blocking out the really unpleasant things. I will most likely never worry about the possibility that my church might burn in the night or wonder if my husband will be seen as a threat to law enforcement officers if he’s dressed in baggy jeans and a hoodie. It’s very possible that I could go the rest of my life without ever engaging in meaningful conversations about race with my sons.  I don’t think about the hard things in life because I am mostly removed from them. I don’t think about these things because I don’t have to.

But surely I have some responsibility. Surely the gospel compels me to do something. Raising my young boys to rightly understand this world—to fully grasp the gospel and how they should try to live it out in this time and in this place—may very well be the most important thing I ever do. Will I follow the example of previous generations and hope that because I do not actively teach them to be racist, that this in itself will be enough? Will they understand and see all the ways in which our society is tilted in their favor? Will they grasp the role they are to play in using their privilege to elevate the voices of those that are often marginalized? Will they even care?

How in the world am I supposed to teach them these things when I still have trouble recognizing them myself?

In an effort to educate myself on the civil rights era and how it played out in the places I call home, I am reading books, watching documentaries, and talking to people who lived through it. My husband and I are currently watching the documentary series from PBS, Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years. Each night as we watch people recount stories of the bus boycotts in Montgomery or view recordings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. passionately preaching, I feel the blinders coming off. As I watch the drama unfold of what it took to enroll James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962, or see numerous governors decide to close the public schools instead of integrating them, I am shaken. I am even more shaken to realize that it was totally acceptable in our society for the vast majority of white Americans—many who identified as Christians—to hold such racist views. As I watch white southerners in Arkansas and Mississippi gleefully chant “Two-Four-Six-Eight, We Don’t Want to Integrate,” I realize that I am looking into the face of my past. This—this right here—is my heritage on display.

And it’s incredibly ugly.

What do I to do with all of this? What’s my role in the months and years ahead as I teach my students and raise my children? I still have no idea how to solve big systemic problems like racial injustice, but that doesn’t mean I can remain unmoved by their existence. When people you love are hurting, you hurt with them. If I am able to move through life completely unaffected by the suffering of my black brothers, what does that say about my love for them? What does that say about my claim that the gospel has truly changed me?

Nicholas Winton, the man who saved hundreds of children from Nazi persecution during World War II, said, “There is a difference between passive goodness and active goodness, which is, in my opinion, the giving of one’s time and energy in the alleviation of pain and suffering. It entails going out, finding and helping those in suffering and danger and not merely in leading an exemplary life in a purely passive way of doing no wrong.”

To my shame, I have often been content to live my life “in a purely passive way of doing no wrong.” Due to a combination of ignorance and indifference, I have been unmoved by the injustices around me. I have withdrawn from discussions about difficult things because it makes me uncomfortable. I have not found or helped “those in suffering and danger.”

While I cannot take off my whiteness or opt out of the privilege it brings, I can do more to educate myself and my friends and family about the realities of our shared history. I am convinced that there are thousands of people out there like me. Thousands of people who have no idea what to do and so they follow the path of least resistance that is paved with apathy. For every person that is yelling something hateful or waving a confederate flag intending to offend, there are many, many more people that are stuck in the terrible trap of indifference. I am certain that there are many gospel-believing white Christians out there who want to make a difference but feel helpless and have no idea what to do.

Here is my plea to you, dear friends:

Just begin.

Begin by reading this book, this book, or this book. Begin by watching this documentary. Begin by reading more about how racism is a “system that institutionalizes an unequal distribution of resources and power between white people and people of color.” Begin by finding like-minded Christians who will dialogue with you about your white privilege and give you precious feedback. Begin by inviting the black folks in your life to really be in your life by sitting around your dinner table and praying in your living room. Begin in whatever way seems most natural to you.

But please, just begin.

What I Have Learned About White Privilege

 

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When I walk into my classroom on the first day of school each year, I am always nervous. It’s not because I don’t know what to do or say, or because I am unsure if things will go well. I don’t know why I always have butterflies in my stomach, but maybe it’s because there are all these students sitting quietly in their seats, faces turned toward me, waiting for me to begin.

There is a palpable anticipation on their part and they are looking to me to set the tone for how our class will proceed. That first day, every student is new to me. And though they might have heard about me from older students and I might recognize some of them, this is the first time they are a student in my class. And it’s a little awkward. They don’t usually get my jokes that first day or realize that I am most comfortable when I’m being goofy. It takes us a little while to form into the class that we will eventually become. They have to learn about me and my quirks and I have to learn about them. But mostly, it takes us a while to really gel as a class because I have to earn their trust.

My first few years as a teacher, I didn’t understand that teaching was all about building a relationship with my students. Naively, I thought it was about lesson plans, grading papers, and classroom management. I eventually learned that what good teaching really comes down to is me going out of my way to show students that I am on their side, that I am for them and that I believe they can do the work. I must do this over and over and over. My first job is to “win them over;” after I’ve done that we can get down to the business of learning Geometry.

I used to think it was obvious that I was on their side… I’m their teacher! Of course I want my students to be successful, of course I will help them if they need it, of course I have time for them! But I teach high school mathematics. By the time students get to my class, they have already decided that they either like math or they H-A-T-E math. It then becomes my challenge to convince those students who feel uncomfortable and even a bit suspicious of me that I truly am on their side. I don’t have any control over my students’ past experiences that shape their views of mathematics. I have to take each student as he or she comes and many come with a history of feeling like an outsider in math class.

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Somewhere along the way I realized that there is a very particular power dynamic that exists in a classroom between teacher and student. Not only am I the only adult in the classroom, but I am also the one that assigns work, controls their grade, and judges their behavior as acceptable or not. These are perfectly valid reasons for any student to be wary of me during the first few weeks of school; students who have had bad experiences in previous classes will be even more justified in wondering if I can be trusted. Am I the kind of teacher that is going to sigh deeply at them when they come in two minutes late? Am I going to make sure they feel my frustration when they sheepishly admit that they don’t have their homework… again? Even worse, am I going to shame them in front of others because they don’t understand a concept?

Because I am the teacher and I have the power, I have to be very careful with my words, my tone, my actions, and even my facial expressions. It’s up to me to show my students over and over that I can be trusted. I can’t just say it once and expect them to believe me. It will not do to simply assume that my students rightly interpret my subtle attempts to show them that I care. I must over-communicate my position that I am on their side and that I believe in them because, given their likely background, they will have a hard time trusting me. I first have to acknowledge that the power dynamic exists and then work within that construct to help my students flourish.

There are also power dynamics that exist in our larger culture. These range from obvious ones like the dynamic that exists between high wealth and low wealth groups, to more subtle ones like the tension that can exist between people who were born and raised in a place and those that are newcomers to that same area. And there are definite power dynamics that exist in our culture because of race, but this is one of those things the majority white culture doesn’t particularly want to acknowledge. I get it. By admitting that whites have a kind of privilege not enjoyed by minorities, it feels like I am happily identifying with my ancestors who took it for granted that they were privileged. It feels distasteful and, honestly, it makes me feel… dirty? It’s hard to explain the emotions that swirl around in my head/heart/stomach, but it feels similar to the nervousness I feel on the first day of school. I don’t want there to be a power dynamic and I certainly don’t want to benefit from it. It feels very uncomfortable to admit that I have some sort of “power” that is accessible to me simply because I am white.

But admitting that a power dynamic exists doesn’t mean that I am endorsing it.

And so, just as I’ve realized it is on me to show my students over and over that I can be trusted, it is on us, white folks, to show our minority friends, acquaintances and even strangers over and over that we can be trusted. It does not matter whether we want this power dynamic to exist–it’s there. Perhaps the first step in shifting the power dynamic is to look for it in our own lives and then work to elevate the voices of those around us who are often ignored. Perhaps we can begin to shift the balance of power in a significant way as we listen to one another and consciously decide that we are not content with how things are. Perhaps one day, the idea of white privilege will legitimately be a foreign concept to my children’s children.