I have never been one to read. When I was in elementary school it always seemed like a chore to read, unless it was something that I was super interested in. According to my mother, I loved reading until somebody tried to tell me what to read and how to read…Hmmm…I don’t think I have changed much since the 2nd Grade if you ask me. 2nd grade me was awesome! I played three sports, I played outside, I watched Power Rangers every time I got the chance. That was the life. Of course, all things must come to an end. Even though I still coach baseball after having played it as a kid, I was there opening weekend to see the new Power Rangers movie when it came out, and am still exceptionally stubborn when people try to tell me what to do! Hmmm…I guess some people never grow up.
I grew up with a fairly normal childhood in Illinois, Northern Alabama, Hawaii, and Indianapolis. We moved all over when I was a kid because my father was a music pastor and we would go wherever he was called. For the most part, it was the “American Dream”; Baseball games, Home-cooked meals (Hamburger Helper) every night, church every Sunday and Wednesday, with a mom and a dad who worked a lot, but always tried to be there for us. But as I graduated from high school and got through college I began to realize how isolated my life had been. I had lived in four different states, yet had not once felt like I had to step out of my class or my race. I never saw the other side of life.
When I moved out and got my first three jobs, they were all in places with similar backgrounds that I had grown up in: rural or suburban schools, mostly comprised of white students. I was living in my comfort zone and only seeing one side of the equation. It wasn’t until I taught at a school in the Promise Zone in St. Louis that I realized how sheltered from the other side I had been. The Promise Zone is an area of North St. Louis County and St. Louis city (because for some reason those are two different things) that experiences over 25% unemployment. And due to that reeling statistic, the communities are struggling. Don’t get me wrong, these are very tight-knit communities that help out their neighbors, but crime and drugs have taken over much of the neighborhoods. So when I had an opportunity to teach there, I gave myself every chance I could to understand these students. I wanted to help them. Maybe it was a little bit of the “Superman white teacher” syndrome we’ve talked about in me, but honestly, after the first couple of weeks, I realized how much this was going to be an education in empathy for me, way more than it was for them.
Back to books. The reason I bring up my background and teaching experience is that I recently read the book “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. The title comes from the phrase made popular by Tupac, Thug Life (The Hate U Give) I would imagine that if I had stayed in one of the first schools that I taught at, I would never have picked up this book. Having taught in a neighborhood similar to the characters in the book, I felt it was my obligation to read and try to understand.
I don’t want to give too much away about the book, but the main storyline lies with a girl named Starr. Starr is a black girl who lives in one of those neighborhoods like the Promise Zone, but goes to a prep school outside of the neighborhood; however, her family is connected to the community and Starr is connected to some of her friends there. Starr finds herself at a party in the neighborhood and runs into a friend, Khalil, who takes her home after an incident at the party. On the way home, he gets pulled over by a white police officer. The scene plays out that Khalil is shot by the officer during the stop and the officer claims self-defense, but Starr knows that Khalil didn’t have a gun.
Throughout the book, Starr is struggling with the death of her neighborhood friend while also trying to stay under the radar at her mostly white, upper-class high school. She even has a white boyfriend she must reconcile her feelings about. Much of the book involves Starr trying to find her identity- That portion alone relates to students. The part that I really want to hit on is the feelings over watching your friend be shot by the police. She lives in a neighborhood that is suspicious of the police. Crime is a part of life, but so is the close-knit part of the community. I think it’s a struggle that many of our minority students have felt over the course of their lives; a struggle that many of us just can’t begin to understand unless we break down our walls and truly try to understand our students.
I am not ignorant to the fact that the issue in itself is divisive and highly controversial. I want it to be clear that I am not advocating for one side or the other. I am simply advocating for the understanding of one side in an effort to have a conversation with students and bridge a gap that may exist in our understanding of them. You may disagree with the students that feel just like Starr, but as one of our pastors, Nick Ballard, put it this weekend in describing another divisive issue, “Disagreement is not rejection. Disagreement is an opportunity for love to be expressed more powerfully.” That’s what I think reading this book will do for you, especially if you’re in a school where the modus operandi of the students is the same as the students in Garden Heights, where the book is set. It will give you an opportunity to love more powerfully. I think love and empathy are powerful things. That student in your class that you disagree with over the recent Nike campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick needs love. It doesn’t matter if you don’t agree with them, but understanding where they are coming from and their viewpoint being appreciated is what matters the most to them. It isn’t the fact that you agree with them that opens them up to being loved, it’s your ability as an adult to see beyond your own beliefs and have an honest conversation with a student that opens them up to love. Some students will push your buttons with this issue, but as many an educational scholar has said: “Students who need the most love, often ask for it is the most difficult ways.”
I challenge you to read this book. Maybe you will hate it. Maybe you will love it. Many of you won’t read it for the same reason that many people chose not to read to the end of the blog or at all, they just weren’t interested. And that’s fine. But I want you to consider opening yourself up to a book that will open your eyes and hopefully lead you to a positive relationship with students who need love.
Thanks for reading,