Recently, I have been thinking about my several-year career as a high school teacher. Maybe it’s because I miss teaching a little bit and maybe it’s because I have a daughter in high school, but it’s been on my mind. Sometimes teaching high school makes you feel pretty good about yourself. Maybe once a semester you think, “Hey…I think that kid might have actually listened to me.” You get all puffed up with self admiration and then next day you find yourself wondering if there are any available jobs open in lion taming, or sewer cleaning, or human testing for plant toxicity or something. It’s a bit of a roller coaster. I think one of the main reasons that the job is so difficult is because it comes with so much responsibility. There are lives in the balance. Here, each day when you walk through the door, are kids who will either crash and burn or pull themselves together and find a way to make it through life. Responsibility and authority…a teacher is responsible for up to thirty kids at one time. We have to teach them what they need to know to pass tests and graduate and perform crowd control at the same time. (Once I had a class of about 25 kids, five of whom were in court ordered anger management classes. Interesting times. I could write my own literature. It would be a thriller.) At any rate, I actually loved the kids I taught, even some of the most obnoxious and difficult ones. Sometimes, especially the obnoxious and difficult ones. But it was not an easy job. It could occasionally be really scary. And I’ve been thinking even more about the authority and responsibility inherent in that job since the news came out of Ferguson. Why? I guess even though I was a teacher, not a police officer I can see some places where the two jobs deal with some of the same sort of crap.
Here’s one of the stories that’s come to mind (there are more…especially when you consider what some of the other teachers went through). When I taught high school, I can remember standing within three feet of a seventeen year old boy who was standing on a desk in front of me, fists clenched, screaming. Three feet, maybe four feet from me. The screaming seemed to be directed at me. It was within my first two weeks of school and I did not know this child at all, so it was difficult to know exactly how I had come to annoy him so quickly. Usually, it takes people I meet at least six to eight weeks before they decide they hate me enough to stand on furniture and swear at me. Anyway, this kid was suddenly standing on a chair, clenching his fists, clearly out of control, right in front of me. It was quite a surprise. Once I had come to accept the surreality of the situation, I managed to talk him off the desk and he was sent out of the room and into in-school suspension for maybe a week or so, after which he returned to my classroom. Strangely, we had an okay year after that. In fact, we learned a lot of ways to help him keep himself calm and he even volunteered to help me out when he could. I ended up liking him a lot better than I thought I was going to when he was standing in a chair in front of me, cursing at me.
And here’s the thing, I might have been in real danger. The story did not have to end in the way that it did. He could have come off that desk and hit me, probably really hurt me if he wanted to…and I didn’t know him well enough to know whether he wanted to. I am not sure if he knew whether he wanted to hurt me. I was a 38 year old woman at the time. I am not a small woman, but I was no match for him. Plus he had lots of practice at that sort of thing since one of his hobbies was getting into fights on the weekend and I pursue less demanding activities like gardening (although you should see me wrestling locust trees out of the ground…but that’s another story). In spite of the obvious danger, in spite of the fact that I was in no way a match for him, I can’t imagine shooting him, even though he was threatening me. I was his teacher. I was responsible for him and for all the other students in the room. The whole thing was not about me or even my safety in that moment. It was about making the situation less violent and making sure that if he did hurt someone it was me and not any of the other kids. In fact, I didn’t want him to hurt himself. That was my job as an authority figure. To keep us all as safe as possible, even at risk to myself.
There are a few things you should know. First, I am a coward. I don’t seek out situations where I might be hurt or injured or experience any kind of pain or inconvenience. Quite frankly, I am not a fan of pain or inconvenience. But it was my job as an authority figure to keep the well-being of every student I had in mind, even the ones standing on chairs screaming invectives. The second is that this situation was probably not the scariest thing that happened at that school and we had a security officer with a gun. He never shot anyone that I know of.
Another thing that you should know is that this particular student was dealing with the abuse of his mother at home. He was really struggling with a lot of things beyond his control, and in our subsequent interactions it became clear that he really wanted to be in control of his actions and emotions but didn’t have a lot of examples to help him out. (I didn’t find out about any of his family issues until about mid year.)
All of this is to say: what is the difference between my reaction and the reaction of the police when they shoot unarmed black teenagers? (And even if you think the facts of this case in Ferguson are not settled there are many, many, many more cases….far too many to explain away.) Are the police responsible for the safety of citizens whether or not those citizens are behaving appropriately all the time? Does even a perceived threat equal a death sentence? Every day unarmed teachers and security officers deal with threatening situations like this. One of my education teachers told us about being in a situation where a security officer managed to take a gun from an armed student without shooting him at great risk to his own safety because he didn’t want to harm the student. (The Security Officer had a gun and used it to de-escalate the situation instead of killing the student). What is the difference between the reaction of those of us in schools and police officers on the street? Police officers typically have non lethal options for stopping people as well. Why do we see totally such totally different outcomes in educational and law enforcement settings? Surely, so many cases of being threatened by an unarmed teenager don’t have to be resolved with lethal force.
Why in so many cases does it come down to that? There are obviously factors that result in very different outcomes for very similar levels of threat. My own take on it is that in schools, we see students as people, complicated and difficult but people. Humans with potential. The kid screaming on the chair can join the Army. The suicidal girl with bi-polar disorder is a really good artist. The guy in the back of the class who falls asleep on his desk is working in a garage at night to help his mother make ends meet. Joe may yell, “F*** you!” to Martha while you are reading The Scarlet Letter but he offers to come and mow your grass or get you some of his Mamaw’s moonshine (the brown is for colds and cough and the green one for arthritis…I don’t remember…I bet you would quit coughing and not be able to feel your legs with either one. If you ever run into Joe’s Mamaw she always has some by the way…keeps it under her shirt). The point is they were all people to me.
Now, I know not all school systems or teachers teach with that understanding of authority, but it's much more prevalent than in other instances where one group of people is responsible for another. I think at it's best teaching like parenting is an instance in which whatever power you might briefly hold over another person is meant to be in that person's best interest. Control is held lightly and only to enable the other person to achieve certain goals. The goal of law enforcement, it seems to me is to ensure that everyone can live in a community free of fear and to remove those who cannot cooperate for the good of others and...yes...even themselves.
When you cross a line and the people under your authority become mere threats...all of them....then I think the outcomes will be that law enforcement causes the very fear and chaos it seeks to prevent. When you see someone and immediately assume that the person is a problem or worse yet a “thug” then hope for humane authority and responsibility is lost. Authority carries a great deal of responsibility for the people you have power over. It might even require you to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are human, just like you. It might also require that your main goal in interactions is not simply to remain safe. Ask a teacher.
Sometimes patterns of authority can become entrenched; systems seem foundational. But that is no excuse not to rethink them when they become oppressive.
****I would like to note that I personally know some very nice police officers and I am not condemning all police officers.