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What my students taught me

It might sound naïve, but I truly believe that education is key to solving the many challenges we face at the local, national, and even global level.

As I welcome students into my classroom this fall, my mind keeps going back to events earlier this year. Toward the end of the last school year, I was having a discussion with my second-grade students about a field trip. We talked about what they should do if they ended up separated from the group and whom they could go to if they needed help. I told the students that if they saw a police officer they could go to him or her. One of my students raised his hand and with tears in his eyes asked, “What if you’re too afraid of the police officers?” 

Grace Fortier

At first, I was confused and asked the student why he would be afraid of the police. He told me that one time his dad was “beat up by a cop for no reason.” While I had no idea about the details of the incident, I felt it was my job to address the concerns of my student. We talked about how cops are people and sometimes people don’t always make the right choices, but it doesn’t mean that every police officer is a bad person. During the field trip, I pointed out some police officers who were helping people cross a busy crosswalk. We talked about how these police officers weren’t doing anything scary; they were helping us. The student seemed comforted, and I felt I had been a good teacher for the day. 

When I heard about the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, I thought about that field-trip incident with my student. I thought how blind I had been, how naïve, and how ignorant. My head spun while listening to the news coverage. I felt sick. I felt sorrow. I felt shame. Sick that two more human beings had their lives prematurely taken. Sorrow for their families who would never be the same. Shame that something like this happened not only in the state that I’m from, but the city in which I live … again. 

Education is key

As I began to internalize the formidable challenge facing our city, state and nation to end racial discrimination and inequality, I found myself coming back to the same place each time: education. It might sound naïve, but I truly believe that education is key to solving the many challenges we face at the local, national, and even global level. This might be through traditional academics, or education about belief systems that differ from our own. It might be education about the (real and uncomfortable) history of our nation and how this has led to prejudices and systemic inequality that persists today. It might be an education recognizing and coming to terms with our own privilege. 

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How could I assure my students of color that they would be safe around police officers when I don’t know that and will never know how it feels to be a young black male growing up in a society that sees him as a threat rather than a young person brimming with potential? How could I say, “Oh no, don’t worry, police officers are our friends” when they see people who look like them treated as if they’re less deserving of respect and dignity simply because of the amount of melanin present in their skin? How could I, a white woman, assure them that “everything would be fine” as if I was putting a Band-Aid on a skinned knee on the playground? 

We can’t continue to ignore these truths. We need to take action. We need to check our own biases and prejudices, which are rooted in our experience as children. A time when we were given books and dolls always anointed with alabaster skin, and movies with one-dimensional black/brown characters that reinforced false narratives and stereotypes. 

Awe — and anxiety

I look into the faces of my wonderful, intelligent, talented, beautiful, kind students and along with feeling awe, I feel anxious. I worry that the lives of these small people I have come to love could be taken by someone who doesn’t know them as I do. Will they be safe? 

If you ask teachers, most of them will tell you that “their students” become “their kids” over the course of a school year. We love them and guide them. Also, just as a parent would, we can become fierce in protecting them from harm. While I don’t have any of my own children, I do have 38 children of color whom I consider myself responsible for not only teaching but also keeping safe. I can’t keep them protected in my classroom forever, and that leaves me with only one option for this upcoming school year: get up, get out, and work to do whatever I can to bring our community together so that it’s safer, fairer, more just and respectful toward all of its citizens.

This is what my students taught me, and I will be forever grateful for the education I received. 

Grace Fortier is an educator at Urban Academy Charter School in St. Paul.


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