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.

Advice From the Person Least Likely to be a Mom

 

I stumbled across this post that I wrote over three years ago about how difficult I found parenting to be… oh, how true that remains! I thought I would re-publish it because 1) the book I recommend is still one of my favorites, and 2) the pictures of baby Jeremiah are cracking me up! He was such a mess! 

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I’ve never been a kid person. When Michael and I first got married (and for many years after that) I would walk by the baby isle at Target and inwardly cringe at all of the baby stuff. I didn’t hate babies, I just had no idea what I would do with one of my own. Kids were something for later… waaaaay later.

And then something happened and now I was living in “later.” It was time to think about having a baby. When we talked about having children, we always jumped ahead in our thinking to when they would be cool. Like when they were 9 or 10 years old. When they would be able to read and play guitar and have a conversation. We didn’t really focus on what it would be like to have an infant– largely because we had absolutely no idea.

For instance, did you know that new moms can become slightly irrational about their little ones? I do not usually consider myself to be the irrational type, but within 12 hours of bringing J home, I became obsessed with the temperature in his room. He was born on July 1, but I was convinced we were keeping it too cold in the house. I bought two thermometers for his room because I needed to know at all times what the temperature and humidity level was. I needed two thermometers so that I could make sure they were accurate.

I didn’t realize how much this child would change me. I knew he would change a lot of things about my life– sleeping, to name a big one– but I didn’t realize how much he would change me. I didn’t know how much I would miss him while he spent an afternoon at Grammy’s. I didn’t know how much I would love making him giggle hysterically by yelling “Boo!” at him. I wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be to listen to him cry in his crib. I had no idea how much my heart would leap when he placed his hands on either side of my face, looked me straight in the eyes, and leaned in super fast for a kiss (which turned into more of a head butt.)

I had no idea about anything baby-related and I didn’t really try to fix that. I read a few books when I was pregnant about how to swaddle a baby and help him sleep through the night, but that was it. In my mind, there was a good reason for not reading tons of books about becoming a parent. I didn’t want to obsess over every decision I made. I didn’t want to read books that would contradict each other and leave me frustrated and confused. I didn’t want to read about all the things I should be doing and create more and more metrics to judge myself by. I’ve been down that road before and it never ends up where I think it will. It took a really long time, but I’ve mostly embraced the idea of grace. The idea that I am going to make mistakes but there is grace for me.

I didn’t dive into all the books that I might have read. Instead, I turned to a few dear friends who probably did read all those books and I said, “Help me please!” I have learned a ton from them and I am grateful for their patience with me. I know they think I’m a bit strange with all my [basic] questions, but I would rather ask someone I love (and who loves me!) what they tried and how it worked, than try and sort through what books are going to be helpful and what books are going to make me hate myself.

So, this next part is going to be pretty ironic because I am now going to recommend a parenting book that I read and really loved. I am not against books. I love books! I’m just trying to be more discerning about what I read and whose advice I take. This book is one that has really stuck with me and I find myself thinking about throughout the day. Especially in those “melt-down” moments.

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Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson- The authors do a fantastic job of showing us how to bring the Gospel into our parenting. What I think about the Gospel is the most important thing about me. So to have a book that demonstrates how the Gospel dispenses grace into every aspect of parenting is incredibly refreshing. There’s good theology in this book, but there are also good, practical discussions on how to raise your children to love, adore, and be captured by the Gospel.

“Every way we try to make our kids “good” is simply an extension of Old Testament Law– a set of standards that is not only unable to save our children, but also powerless to change them. No, rules are not the answer. What they need is GRACE. We must tell our kids of the grace-giving God who freely adopts rebels and transforms them into loving sons and daughters. If this is not the message your children hear, if you are just telling them to “be good,” then the gospel needs to transform your parenting too.”

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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.

I Will Not Stay Silent: A Southern White Woman’s Response to the Charleston Massacre

 

I have always willingly identified as a southerner. My mother is from Savannah, Georgia, my father is from Greenville, Mississippi and I grew up in various towns in Alabama. I am most at home when the humidity is above 80%, there’s a pitcher of sweet tea in the fridge, and folks stop by just to “visit.” Many people are surprised to hear that I’m from Alabama—I’m not sure why but maybe it’s because I don’t fit the stereotype that most people have. I don’t even know what the stereotype of a white woman in her 30’s from Alabama might be, but I think it probably includes a strong southern accent, a considerable lack of education, and cooking with lard, fatback, and streak-a-lean. Oh, and someone who stays in Alabama. Moving out of state to attend university gave me my first taste of the shock I would often encounter when meeting someone unfamiliar with folks from the Deep South. They are often genuinely surprised that we can be levelheaded, articulate, and sincere.

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But I am from the south and, until recently, thought I would live there forever. A year ago, my husband, two young boys, and I moved to Long Island, New York. We knew it would be an adjustment and there would be hard moments. We knew it would take a commitment on our part to hold ourselves here, to wait for things to get easier, to trust that the decision to leave home— to leave everything we’d ever known—was wise. And we were right. It has been incredibly difficult at times to be so far away from loved ones who know us and love us. It’s been hard to find our rhythm in an environment where the pace is much faster than anything we’ve ever experienced. It’s taken a conscious effort on our part to remember why we came in light of how homesick we’ve been. This past year has confirmed that I will probably always feel more at home in a place that is hot and muggy and where the people move slower because of it.

And yet… I am becoming painfully aware in the wake of last week’s massacre in Charleston, SC that much of what made up the air I breathed as a little white girl growing up in lower Alabama was revisionist history. The “South” that I love and have been desperately homesick for, doesn’t really exist. I have always known this on some level, but I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know the extent to which my ideas of home have been informed by things that just aren’t true. [1][2]

I’ve long been disabused of any idea that the Civil War was really about states’ rights or that the Confederate flag has any business being anywhere but a museum [3], but I can’t escape the fact that my very experience has been that of a privileged white woman. [4] And I can’t escape the fact that most of my friends are privileged white women. Amazing women. Gospel-loving women. And we have the privilege of going to church on Wednesday night without the fear that someone will gun us down because we are white. There is no flag flying high above a government building that symbolizes the hatred people had for my ancestors. The very fact that we can post on Facebook about puppies, vacations, and funny jokes in the days after the Charleston Massacre means that we have no idea what our African-American brothers and sisters are experiencing. [5]

I was born in 1979, just fifteen years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Fifteen years. How can I think that the south I was born into and interacted with as a little girl was so very different than the south that tore itself apart in the 1950’s and 1960’s?

I think the problem white people in my generation have with understanding race issues is that we see it as taking place a lifetime ago, long before we were born. My mother tells me about a time in the 1950’s when they didn’t have a television, when she was required to wear either a skirt or a dress to work in the 1960’s, and about the first microwave they bought in the 1970’s. There is a vast gulf between her childhood and mine. Her history seems far away, so separated from our society today. The videos I’ve watched of the protests, marches, and speeches from the Civil Rights Movement seem to be from a different time, much like Armstrong’s walk on the moon seems to have more in common with the invention of the automobile than with my daily experience. And though my father went to the University of Mississippi in the 1960’s around the same time as James Meredith, I often forget that particular part of his history. I forget that the man who raised me was raised in Greenville, MS in the 1950’s.

I forget because my parents are wonderfully loving people who tried very hard to raise their children to see everyone as equal. They talked often about making friends with people of all races and set examples for us in their own lives. They didn’t, however, talk much about the reason it was so important to intentionally treat everyone as equal. They left it up to the schools to teach us about the Civil Rights Movement in that very sterile way textbooks teach everything—I certainly never read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in school. [6] My parents and many other white parents didn’t talk to their children about the things they must have witnessed in their schools, on the buses, at water fountains. I know that living through the Civil Rights Movement in the south impacted my parents and I know the collective history of the south is one that must be painful to them and others like them. Therefore, like many other whites from that time, they didn’t talk to their children about their true, painful, bloody history. And so, our history— our heritage— didn’t become real to us. Instead, we were left to parse together a romanticized version that leaves us feeling incredibly defensive whenever someone comes along and challenges our love of home. [7]

I know some of my white friends will be frustrated with me after reading this, and that’s okay. We have a shared history of silence when it comes to discussing difficult things. Race, poverty, and injustice—these are things that polite southern ladies don’t often enter into discussions about. [8] As my mama always said, “Honey, don’t stir the stink ‘cause it’ll just make it stronger.” Perhaps we don’t discuss these issues because we don’t know how to begin. Or because we are afraid of doing it wrong and making things worse. Or because we haven’t seen it modeled for us by our mothers and grandmothers. But I don’t want to stay silent any longer. I want to be part of the discussion. Mostly, I want to listen to my African-American brothers and sisters and learn about their experiences. I want my African-American students, along with all my students of color, to know that although I have not had their same experiences, I stand with them. [9]

I won’t remain silent any longer. Even if I mess up in my attempts to understand, I trust that my African-American brothers and sisters will be gracious with me and help me. The only way I know to start the process of reconciliation is on a personal level— through conversation. And so I am beginning. Will you join me?

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[1] Article on “Lost Cause” narrative, John Price, https://medium.com/@thejohnprice/yes-you-re-a-racist-and-a-traitor-6c4bb12c5b63

[2] What this Cruel War was Over, Ta-Nehisi Coates, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/

[3] The Cross and the Confederate Flag, Russell Moore, http://www.russellmoore.com/2015/06/19/the-cross-and-the-confederate-flag/

[4] White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh, http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html

[5] Eugene Scott quote on Facebook: What must it be like to live a life where the ‪#‎CharlestonShooting seems so irrelevant to your daily life that you can remain silent?

[6] Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., Justin Taylor (notes and outline) http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2015/06/18/martin-luther-king-jr-letter-from-birmingham-jail-the-complete-text-and-an-outline/

[7] White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism, Robert DiAngelo, http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism-twlm/

[8] I am very aware that the reason we don’t enter into these conversations is because we don’t have to. It’s another example of white privilege.

[9] Charleston and Teaching Children, Chris Lehmann, http://practicaltheory.org/blog/2015/06/18/charleston-and-teaching-children/