This past January, a video of two young girls wearing charcoal masks, dancing around to music, went viral at my school. In addition to the blackface, one hunched over like an ape and scratched her armpits, grunting again and again to emphasize her simian characterization. She was a subhuman creature in a long tradition of images and rhetoric that have rendered African Americans worthy of ridicule and much worse.
Surrounded by a swirl of students in the language hallway at our prep school, an African American senior named Tania (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) showed me the video on her phone. As faculty, we had been warned that morning of its existence but I was still unprepared for the force of it, even though it was short. I was even more baffled to learn that the grunting animal was Marie (her name has also been changed), my former student.
No one could pinpoint the exact date of the video’s creation, but many believed it was made during the students’ seventh grade year. If this was true, its production was sandwiched between my own instruction: I taught Marie in both sixth and eighth grade.
At the heart of my pedagogy is the sincere belief that no one can learn from someone they do not know, and so I routinely share details of my life with my students. I make myself vulnerable to them so that they will make themselves vulnerable to me. It is only during this exchange that I believe authentic learning can take place. But after watching the video that Monday morning, I couldn’t help but wonder, Was that what Marie really thought of me? Had her affection all been an act? Was I such a poor judge of character?
As though anticipating those very concerns, an email appeared in my inbox a few days later. “I have so much love and respect for you,” Marie wrote. “I hope you will never doubt that I am the student you know.”
The school’s middle and upper school divisions are housed on a twenty-five acre campus in Brooklyn with an entrance on either end guarded by security shacks. Between them stretches a duck pond, tennis courts, a regulation-size football field, and a multi-million dollar state-of-the-art squash center. The schoolhouse itself is a designated historical landmark. In the shape of a quad, it has ivy covered brick walls and a tall, white steeple.
Sitting that afternoon in my classroom, I debated whether to grant Marie the forgiveness she requested. In the end, I chose to love her, in the hope that my faith in her would be validating enough to some day make her worthy of it. I reasoned she was, after all, a child, and I would prefer she made those mistakes now rather than later in life. There were many things that I had said and done that I would never want broadcast.
It pained me to think that her middle school folly was being judged by everyone she knew and a whole host of people she didn’t. Even the mayor of New York City weighed in. Her ability to reach out to me amidst all that turmoil spoke to her strength of spirit ― the same spirit that I had witnessed and admired in my own classroom.
But putting Marie’s dilemma into words was much easier than articulating how the students and faculty of color felt. Better minds than mine have tried. W.E.B. Du Bois, the African American philosopher, described “a veil” that separated him from his white classmates. The writer James Baldwin called it “a poison” that infected him with a blinding “chronic disease.”
Many of us teachers of color were veterans of traditionally white spaces, which meant that we brought our own remembered traumas into the classroom. The video itself triggered flashbacks which, until recently, I had always thought of as they are presented in movies: The sufferer is transported back in time where they see the traumatic events. But that’s not quite right. They’re not a visual phenomenon. Rather, they engulf you in all the shock and helplessness of that initial, inconceivable hurt.
It is under these conditions that the strain on black bodies manifests as stomach problems, hypertension, diabetes and mental illness ― all the diseases of a hurt long suppressed.
Now that I had offered Marie my own forgiveness, I struggled to clear my clouded mind and turn my attention to the students in my care.
“The video itself triggered flashbacks which, until recently, I had always thought of as they are presented in movies. But flashbacks are not a visual phenomenon. Rather, they engulf you in all the shock and helplessness of that initial, inconceivable hurt.”
Eighteen chairs attached to small desks lined my classroom in an irregular circle. That Monday morning of the video’s release, every seat was filled. We began by acknowledging its content. Then we opened the floor for comments. There were always one or two students whose first response was denial. They didn’t want to see or feel the pain, never mind process it. “What’s the big deal?” they asked. “It was just a joke.” These students needed to learn compassion.
Then there were my old souls, the ones who seemed to have been born with a strong moral compass. They were hyper verbal, so capable of articulating their thoughts and feelings that they didn’t have to take shortcuts like hurling an insult or landing a punch to win an argument. They spoke. They wrote. They had to learn forgiveness. “I’m old enough to know better,” they said. “I wouldn’t do something like that in sixth or seventh grade.”
But the student who I was most concerned about was a young biracial boy the color of Swiss milk chocolate. He was tall, athletic and well liked. But he sat that Monday morning with his hand over his eyes, shaking his head back and forth as though trying to clear it of a concussive fog. He struggled to make sense of how someone within this community could betray him in such a fundamental and ugly way. It’s a kind of dissonance that rings in the mind ― Du Bois’ veil, Baldwin’s poison. He would have a hard time over the next few days with his work. But more than that, he needed to be brought back into the fold ― to know that even though someone within the community had deeply hurt him, he was also deeply loved.
After the discussion with my eighth graders, I wasn’t looking forward to my senior African American Literature class. As my father-in-law would say, “little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems.” We were a total of 15 students, many of them brilliant. What made this group unique was that their entire high school career had been marked by annual racist incidents.
In their freshman year, several students posted a letter on social media claiming that African Americans shot and killed by the police were all criminals and deserved their punishment by death. They also questioned the academic credentials and teaching ability of faculty who were people of color.
Their sophomore year, shortly after Trump’s presidential win, a group of boys in the locker room chanted, “Build a Wall! Build a Wall!” and then as a joke someone added, “We want slaves.” At the end of that same year, still others defaced the student center with homophobic, anti-Semitic and racist graffiti.
Alarmed, teachers soon discovered both a swastika and a racial epithet carved into the wooden conference table in a much used history classroom. When I asked a student about it, her response was, “Those? They’ve been there for years.”
“Applying consequences is tricky. Something like an expulsion was a judgment upon a student’s character that would remain with them for a lifetime... Who wanted to imprint such a thing on a child’s developing soul?”
Their junior year, a senior read confidential information off of a college counselor’s computer screen and later confronted an African American classmate who was applying to the same university and allegedly said, “The only reason you would get in is because you’re from the ghetto and you’re mother died.” It was true, her mother had passed away and several faculty members had worked closely with her to get her through that loss.
And now, senior year, this video of two students in blackface jumping around like monkeys. Another version of the video had also appeared with audio of the word “nigger” playing backwards.
The faculty and administration were baffled. Some argued these incidents continued to happen because punishment was insignificant or hidden from the student body, leaving them to wonder whether it had even been administered at all. But applying consequences is tricky. Something like an expulsion was a judgment upon a student’s character that would remain with them for a lifetime. Whether they were resilient enough to persevere in many ways was irrelevant. Who wanted to imprint such a thing on a child’s developing soul?
At the same time when the community’s well being was jeopardized physically or emotionally, a decision had to be made. We were in the business of teaching and learning and both had come to a grinding halt after these types of incidents — or, rather, a different type of teaching and learning took over.
In many ways it would have been easier if we had been a public school. Private schools are known for their discretion. We were educating the children of politicians, prominent families and movie and rock stars. Their records in private hands need never become public. This could make things fuzzy even for the most seasoned administrator. There were no rules to guide them. Still, the video was a ticking time bomb. For a week, our administrators struggled to make a decision, and their silence inadvertently stoked the furnaces of despair.
That afternoon walking into the African American Literature class, I abandoned the desk at the front and took a seat with the students in their uncomfortable hybrid desks.
We began our discussion. First, the bloodletting: the outrage, the disbelief, the anger and then easing them into the delicate recognition of another emotion at play here ― pain. It was so much easier to admit anger than hurt. Then, we had to consider a path out of the pain and into action but with one central caveat: They might never see the change they hoped to effect. Whatever they did now, they would be doing for the children who would come after them. Could they live with this delayed sense of gratification and the possibility that that would be their only reward?
And so they began drafting a letter to the administration with bullet points enumerating their demands. I coached from the sidelines. “Don’t make the list too long,” I advised them. “Focus. What do you want? What concrete changes can be made?”
I suppose even as I spoke those words, I knew I wouldn’t be returning, and that I would offer my resignation, effective at the end of the school year. All day I had walked a fine line between affirming the students’ rage and soothing it. I had up until that moment kept my own feelings private. But now these older students had pushed me beyond my literary purview and into the moral universe where I was being judged on different terms. The honesty that I had prized and held paramount in the classroom was on trial. Would I stay in line and succumb to the administration’s hitherto empty platitudes or would I acknowledge ― and vocalize ― that for their own emotional well-being the students had to defy those in charge and reshape their environment? My ensuing candor signaled to them that a choice had been made.
“Would I stay in line and succumb to the administration’s hitherto empty platitudes or would I acknowledge ― and vocalize ― that for their own emotional well-being the students had to defy those in charge and reshape their environment?”
Nearing the end of the period, we finally had a workable document when Tania pushed herself outside of the circle. She slumped over in her chair and stretched out as far as it would allow her. Her posture communicated exhaustion. She turned away from the board, her features etched with disgust. I could hear the scar tissue forming over her heart. It had taken me almost all semester to sense her movements like a rudder steering in the deep as a significant animating presence in the classroom. But now I could see the exhaustion in her eyes. She was, after all, also just a child.
It is hard to draw equivalencies in suffering ― Tania versus Marie ― but it is clear that Tania’s burden was great. When we speak of privilege, we are speaking of the freedom from this weight. We all want to belong ― we all want to believe that we are worthy of belonging. Being cast out creates an almost existential terror: What, you wonder, have I done wrong? And when the answer is nothing, the very meaning and value of your life is challenged. If I have done nothing wrong, then why me?
Tania had journeyed into the heart of darkness and now carried back news from within it. There were so very few moments in our lives when we know something with our entire being. With each beat of her heart, each movement of cell upon cell, she knew now with certainty: It cannot be like this.
That Wednesday, I had to go to Mohonk Mountain House, an upstate resort, for a conference. There’s a rumor that it was the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” Even if it wasn’t, every time I stepped out of my room, I expected to see a tidal wave of blood at the end of the hallway. My trip meant I wasn’t at the school when the protest took place, but I saw pictures of it.
Students delivered a letter to the administration featuring the bullet points we’d come up with in class, along with many other points I had never seen before. They also sat in the hallways dressed in all black, with their backs pressed against the walls. More white students participated than I would have expected, but I knew they were also fed up. They were sick of being painted with the same broad strokes as a troubled few. They were sick of seeing their friends hurt. They were sick of being chastised for things that they did not do or even believe in.
There is nothing quite like the stillness of solidarity. For once, they were not moving, pushing, jockeying, elbowing, texting. They were still, and in that moment they turned the space into what they had always hoped it could be.
Five months later at commencement, the head of school praised the protest and encouraged the graduating class to continue to speak truth to power. Only a handful of us in the audience knew what we had to go through to get this seemingly effortless recognition.
On a boring afternoon three schoolgirls made a video. There was no thunder on the horizon to herald their wrongdoing. Only our collective shock, hurt and disgust reflected how much we longed to cast them from us and turn them into the beasts that they themselves depicted. But if we are honest, given the recurrence of these images both domestically and abroad, they represent something inherent about human nature and the strange comfort that denigration brings to our own sense of self. This isn’t our most noble of impulses, and our constant vigilance is required to acknowledge, expose and forgive such transgressions even if it is at the expense of our own personal comfort.
Did my resignation effect lasting change at the school? I don’t know — but that was never really the point. The children saw that I was willing to make a sacrifice for an idea that was greater than me. Every major civil rights advance has come at the expense of struggle. While some might pine for “the good old days,” most of us know that, if anything, that time limited the expression of our full humanity in all its glorious diversity. There will be no return to it without a fight.
At the end of the commencement ceremony, I bolted from my seat. I wove through the clots of celebrating relatives and folding chairs. For a moment, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find her, and then she was before me. Tania broke out of a pose for a photograph and in our embrace, with our hearts pressed together, we were the only two people in the world. I knew then that my teaching was done.
Eva Freeman’s work has appeared in The Catamaran Literary Reader, Black Renaissance Noire and on abcnews.com. She is a former producer for “World News Tonight” at ABC News and graduated from Yale University. She holds an MFA from the University of Maryland, College Park and lives in Brooklyn with her family.