During a pre-service teacher’s student teaching, typically journals are required to share feelings, experiences, and insight about what that time is illuminating. It’s not uncommon to read about future teachers having positive exchanges with students that affirm their career choice. When a student has a lightbulb moment and finally gets whatever it is that they’ve been working on, it provides tangible reinforcement for them and their student teacher. Sometimes, students tell you that you made the year more fun, and it gives a future teacher the extra charge to their internal battery, more power to finish their schooling and continue forward. Likewise, it’s normal to read an entry about a terrible day or something that broke a college student’s spirit or utterly altered their life perspective. Black History Month has ended and it seems only fitting that I share two experiences that were fundamental in shaping who I am, even now, as this important and frightening year continues.
During my student teaching, I had the unique experience of teaching during the year of a presidential election. The timing of my degree placed the final semester of my bachelors degree in the fall of 2008. While I learned to handle a class of 4th graders under the supervision of a veteran teacher, Barack Obama and John McCain were on the campaign trail, trying to win the votes of US citizens across the country. That November, I had reached the part of pre-service training where you work alone, being monitored from a distance. Though the classes weren’t truly mine, they felt like mine and the students saw me as theirs. 2008 was the first year I voted. In 2004, despite being able to vote, I didn’t believe my lone vote mattered or would play any part in the overall situation of my life or of those around me. One term later, I still didn’t believe my vote would change any immediate situation, but I did believe it would impact the perception of those around me. My vote would tell them who I was and what mattered to me. I couldn’t change the world alone, but I could vote for people I believed might make it a little better for more people for the next four years. When I went to sleep on November 4, I knew that something monumental was about to happen. I was either going to wake up to a black president or to the status quo. The next day, holding my coffee, greeting my students as they checked in that morning, it didn’t seem like a different day, but it was. November 5th, 2008 changed my entire perspective on representation. Prior to that point, I knew it mattered, but that Wednesday, I learned that representation is everything. A student came up to me, tapped my arm, and said, “Ms. Tucker, now I know it’s not a lie. Now I know I really can be president if I want to be.” I have never questioned the value of my vote as a single person after that morning. If McCain had won the election, the discussion would have been different, but that student would still have known that I wanted a black man to be my president and when I said he could be anything he wanted to be, he would have at least known that I believed in him and other kids who looked like him. That same student, just the day prior, had asked me who I would be voting for when I left work, and I told him the truth. It was his biggest smile for me all year. The morning after, he was radiant. Representation is fundamental, and so is your vote.
During my second year as a certified teacher, it was coincidentally also an election year. Again, sipping my coffee, I watched with my students as their kid-friendly, student led news report played each morning during announcements and attendance. Trayvon Martin had been killed. I was teaching middle school at the time, and Trayvon could have been the older brother of some of the young people sitting beside me. An email in my inbox warned me to be careful about discussing this death with students, to defer to parents regarding this killing. As a new teacher in a high needs area, I knew that I had some leverage to work with and I decided to take the risk and ignore this email. Discussing something is very subjective, depending on the angle you work from, and I knew I could defend my decision well, if need be. My students didn’t need me to pretend this didn’t happen. They needed me to affirm that someone who looked like them or like someone they knew was killed for being black. As before when Obama was elected, there was no class discussion, but I did have private discussions with any who came to me. Throughout the week, questions would come up, one at a time, and I would answer as honestly as I could. Knowing the tight rope I was walking, I just told my students following the news report that they could talk to me, ask me questions, and I’d do my best. I didn’t start a discussion, but I did have them. Would the guy with the gun go to jail? Should I stop wearing a hoodie? Do skittles make people think I’m going to hurt them? Why are people acting like this hasn’t happened before? What will they do differently to show they actually care? Cups and cups of coffee and they never provided the illusion of capability, because how does one white teacher address such vulnerable questions? How could I possibly sum up systemic racism in tiny moments of conversation in between classes and drawing fractions on a whiteboard? I couldn’t, and I knew this, so I didn’t try. I answered each question until another was presented. No, I didn’t believe that Zimmerman would go to jail because Florida had laws that allowed people to kill someone else when they were afraid of another person’s behavior. No, you shouldn’t stop wearing a hoodie, but if it wasn’t cold outside, don’t put the hood over your head. People tend to get nervous when they can’t see a person’s head and face. No skittles don’t make people think you’re going to hurt them. Trayvon just happened to have skittles. Skittles are not why a man decided to kill him. People are acting like this hasn’t happened before because it has happened so many times throughout our history that we are numb to it. Each new time, we forget that it isn’t new and we’ll likely act again like it’s new when it happens again, somewhere else in a different situation. I don’t know that anyone will do anything differently. I’d like to tell you that things will change, but I do not know that they will. I learned that year that sometimes younger people don’t need hopeful, idealistic words about the future. They need acknowledgement that their reality is indeed reality. Thankfully, no one reprimanded me for answering questions, for “discussing”. Another teacher did ask me about why I was answering and not deferring to parents and I still stand by my response. If I don’t answer them when they ask me a question, how can I ever hope they’ll answer me when I ask them a question? Vulnerability is not a weakness, nor is transparency.
I am not currently a teacher, and I feel for those who are. If my job were on the line as many are now, I’d get fired. Some of my best times as a teacher were when I let the truth be the truth and let the absence of someone in power be the hurt that it is. There is a hole inside when someone who looks like you isn’t in political office to look up to. It aches when the statistical facts say that you might not even live long enough to vote before someone shoots you. It is not a presidential election year, but here in Georgia, we will be voting for governor. I will remember that smile and I will remember the tears and I will vote. Just as that student knew who I was in 2008, another child might see me coming out of that booth this November in 2022 with my sticker and they’ll know that I believed in them enough to ignore the jaded thoughts and have hope. They’ll know that I’m trying to fight, even when it feels meaningless, because nothing is meaningless unless we let it be.