When Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old Black child, was murdered in Sanford, Florida, I was teaching at Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. I taught in the English Department and directed the school’s Writing Center. That year, I was teaching nearly all seniors. Carroll High School was more than 90% Black and those students taught me how to be a teacher.
When Trayvon Martin was murdered, I knew I had to listen deeply to my students. I tried. What I heard from them in discussions and conversations, what I read in their writing, what I saw in their faces, was a kind of sorrow and anger I had never seen. I knew they were changed and I would change too.
I had already taught at Carroll for nearly ten years. I knew these students, their families, their struggles, their joys. I had seen them misjudged, mistreated, and profiled. I had seen people look at them with disdain and fear when we were on field trips, on the Metro, at sports events, at gatherings with other schools. I had heard white teachers disparage my school, these students, our academic enterprise, without knowing anything about my students. My students were judged by people who looked like me, simply because they were Black.
On a couple of occasions, when we were discussing what had happened to Trayvon Martin, the behavior of the police, the time it took to actually arrest the man who admitted killing him, the various legal proceedings, I saw my students trembling with tears, brimming with anger, sometimes stuck in their own silence. I mostly had little to say. My job was to listen to them and to urge them to take their feelings seriously. It was clear to me and to them, that this was truly America’s Original Sin. These young people had done nothing to deserve the suffering that overwhelmed them. In the same way that Trayvon Martin had done nothing to plant an irrational fear in the man who murdered him.
In classes, we had discussions, we wrote, we listened to one another, we read poems, wrote poems, recited poems. All this helped. We came through. But we did not come through unchanged.
Ten years later, it is more clear to me than ever, how much this child’s murder changed me. It changed me, in part, because at the time I was teaching young people who looked, acted, thought, played, goofed around, just like he did. And those students had let me into their lives. I knew them and I loved them.
Needless to say, a great deal has happened in the ten years since Trayvon Martin was killed. There is no way to summarize what America has been through since then. But we still have a lot to learn. Dr. Henry Louis Gates says, in the short video below, that Trayvon Martin’s death caused a rebirth in the Civil Rights Movement. I think that’s true. It certainly ignited a fire in my students and many young people of their generation.
Trayvon Martin’s murder, and walking beside my students as they experienced it, taught me to work at seeing the world through my students’ eyes. I had already been learning this lesson but now it was crucial. To see America through the eyes of my Black students would change me. It would change the way I was an American. It would make me angry, sad, and eventually, more active. It changed the ways I teach, the poems I write, the choices I make. It was one of those transformative moments in life that changes everything. At least it did for me.
And it still does. I have much more to learn. I have more students whose lives and words I need to hear.
The artwork above is by Ricardo Levins Morales. See more of his work at http://www.rlmartstudio.com