Since I left Washington, the weather has gotten hotter and the news has gotten bloodier. Although my town, and my county, has a relatively low homicide rate, my local news still reports tragic, preventable gun deaths in both Hampton Roads and Raleigh/Durham.
Still, I am connected to what’s happening in Washington, DC. In the past few weeks, it seems that there have been countless shooting deaths. I don’t use the word countless lightly: in trying to prepare related links for this essay, I had a hard time narrowing down just how many shooting deaths there have been. I will leave those numbers to the journalists, but the Washington Post says DC has now reached 86 homicides, with the vast majority occurring in the under-resourced Southeast quadrant. The average homicide victim in DC is likely to be a black man in his 20s killed by bullets.
I don’t want to gloss over the news reports, but I must make special mention of two victims: Karon Brown and Manuel Luis, Jr.
Karon was just 11 years old. His family had moved to escape violence in his community that had claimed the life of an innocent little girl, among others. I feel for his brother, who will second-guess his decisions that night for the rest of his life. I feel for his parents. I feel for his classmates who will not see him in the fall to begin a new school year.
Also missing a new school year will be Manuel Luis, Jr., a Morgan State University student who was killed in what seems to be a botched robbery. Although it will be the city of Baltimore which will receive the unfortunate credit for this murder, it is Prince George’s County and Washington which will feel the hurt most acutely. He was a graduate of Parkdale High School, where a friend of mine taught. I watched with empathy as I saw her grief unfold on social media, just as mine had in the days following the death of my student and school-son, Davane Williams. She mentioned that there ought to be grief counseling for the educators, too.
I was lucky. One of the administrators at my school took the lead in making sure our staff had counselors on hand when we lost Davane, as well as the three more former students we’d lost to gun violence. She also made sure there were counselors available when another student vanished into thin air and never returned. During a trying year for us emotionally and spiritually, she did her level best to make sure we had access to the resources we needed to feel whole and healed.
My heart still aches for the educators of Karon, Manuel, and all the other former students who have been killed in the metropolitan area this year.
They say there are two sides to every story. Prior to becoming a teacher of opportunity youth, you’d find me wringing my hands with each additional death by gun violence that one might hear about in the news. I’ve worked for national organizations that fight violence among the youth. I’ve applied to work for countless more. It is the crusade that I didn’t realize was a crusade.
My crusade instead took me to the classroom, where I tried to impact students on a small scale, with a mixture of restorative practices, Quaker peace, and radical love. My faith beliefs converged with my educational practices and created a place where my students could relax and learn. I call that state “the spot where truth echoes”–named from a line in a Saul Williams poem.
You see, my students don’t come from places where peace and freedom are easy states of mind to achieve. It is my belief that students with fewer worries can focus on academic achievement. This comes naturally to middle- and upper-class students. This makes the achievement of Washington private schools a foregone conclusion. Of course, your students are rocking these exams! They are not worried about hunger, housing instability, or violence.
So, my challenge was to create the same place of peace that exists at a Sidwell Friends or a National Cathedral School and place it into the GED classroom of an alternative school. For the hour that I had my students, I had to create an environment of safety, love, and respect. Then, and only then, could I properly teach.
I have two examples where I abdicated the traditional model and invested in building relationships.
During my first year at my last school, the administration kept dumping truant students into one class cohort, making them much larger than the other cohorts. When they showed up from long absences from school, they’d just trickle into this one class that got larger and larger until classroom management was nearly impossible.
They weren’t all bad. Most weren’t rowdy. They were just unfocused on the tasks at hand and didn’t know how to get there.
One day, I’d just had it and decided it would be story time instead. I sat in front of the class and just told my story. It began in the 1980s during the reign of Rayful Edmond and ended with an envelope of Bolivian money.
The students were quiet and paid rapt attention to my story. Prior to that moment in time, they’d figured I was some random Teach For America dude from the suburbs. But now? Now they knew I was one of them–a native Washingtonian who had seen some things.
From that moment on, that cohort recognized me as a real one and became more likely to do what I asked them to do. They also became more likely to trust me when I was diverting them from harm.
There was another time with another group of students, this time much smaller. Overnight, one of their friends had been killed and they were beside themselves with grief. Now, these two guys were my talkers–did absolutely nothing when they were with each other, besides talk loudly and distract others. But this time, they were just quiet. And sad. And angry. And tearful.
One of them found it within himself to ask for a break. He verbalized to me that he needed a cigarette. I told him I couldn’t let him go outside to smoke. He pleaded with me, and in that moment, I thought that I’d just take the repercussion for it. I told the Dean of Culture what they had proposed, and he allowed it. Truthfully, I’d have let them take the cigarette break without the permission.
It’s rare for students like mine to find it in themselves to state what they need in a moment of extreme emotion, but they did, and I honored that. We had almost no relationship before then. But after that moment, I knew we’d had something we wouldn’t forget. I’d seen them at their weakest moment, and they trusted me to take care of them in that place.
With time, such moments of relationship transform into academic gains. Every student who has earned a GED under my tutelage was a hard-fought victory. The battle was won because of love. Nothing else but love, from me to the student, the student to me, and eventually, a love of learning.
When a student sent me the word that one of my other students had been arrested for his alleged involvement in a shooting on a Metro platform in DC, my heart sank. This was a student who was in the room for my personal story I mentioned earlier. We’d had subsequent conversations about his life and mine. He wasn’t my best student by any means, but he was one of my favorites.
He embodied black boy joy, to be honest. But see, people want #BlackBoyJoy to be blouses, butterflies, and flowers. That sort of joy is important, no doubt. Our boys need to understand that one mustn’t be hard to be a man. That one is no less a man because he embraces a softer form of masculinity.
But there is also the #BlackBoyJoy that is sleeveless t-shirts and sagging jeans. The type of joy that is Richard Pryor jokes at the wrong time–a joyful and harmless irreverence. The type of joy that is a permutation of timeless Black Cool, filtered through hip-hop and The Wire and go-go.
My student joked with me about partying at the go-go with me to listen to the “old bands.” He had a devilish comedic timing about him which was the hallmark of his intelligence. After a while, it became apparent that he joked more to see how I would react. I never outright guffawed, but I’d certainly roll my eyes, smirk, and stifle a laugh.
He liked to read, and asked me to purchase a book called S Street Rising for him. When he came to school, he read it. He was not at my school because he was dumb, or because he was unable. He was smart. I truly believe that he was smart.
He’d made dumb choices, though. His recent arrest was not his first time at the criminal justice rodeo. He spoke to me about a prior case before. I told him then that if he wanted me to come to any of his hearings, I would. All he had to do was ask and I’d be there. I’d done that for students before and it changes things. Judges acknowledge it. And the students realize what community can truly look like.
That a community doesn’t throw away their own because they’ve made a mistake. That in a truly restorative community, there is always a way to return home. It won’t be easy. There will be apologies, restitution, and discipline. But you can always return home.
An incident happened with my student this year in which his relationship with school ended. From my point of view, the situation did not rise to the level of an expulsion, but he did not fight for an appeal. I don’t blame him. One knows when they’ve been targeted by an adult who is simply out to get you. When ranking the things to fight for in your life, a student reaches a point when they realize “I’ve been kicked out of better joints than this one.” So, you just leave without a battle.
I did not have a way to reach him when this all went down, so he does not know that I would have fought for him had he asked. I don’t know what he knows. I don’t know what he’s been doing since that expulsion. All I know is that his path ended in his arrest for alleged assault with a deadly weapon.
This is the other side of the story.
A student that I loved as much as I loved a student who died now faces more time in a system that he is sadly already acquainted with. And I can’t stop asking myself “Does he know I love him?” And did I ever tell him? I can’t remember.
I know we talked, deeply and intimately, about his life. His struggles. His fears. But did I tell him that I loved him? Does he know?
Does he know that I don’t care what The Washington Post says? That I will advocate for a fair trial for him, regardless? That I will fight for his right to a competent and aggressive defense?
Does he know that I love him, even though I’m disappointed? Does he know that even though I’m disappointed, I still love him and have his back?
And if he did do this thing, does he know that somehow, I am still going to love him, even though I won’t understand why? That I will plead with him to take his lumps and be done–if he did this thing?
Moments like this make me sad that I’ve left DC. Yet, they are the proof that it was time.
No matter the outcome, I want him to find the spot where truth echoes. Where he can shout his love for himself, over and over again, until it multiplies into a deafening symphony that spills over into his family, his friends, his community, into everyone he touches, so much so that he glows and floats and people wonder how did he become this man, this thing of love that is like water: un-pierceable, constant, powerful.
I want his Black Boy Joy to become his Black Man Power. I want him to join a nation of others in search of the same thing.
I want him to know that Mr. Darden loves him.
An earlier version of this essay appeared on Patreon, exclusively for Patrons.