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Tales from a Reclusive Teacher: A Call to Action in the Fight for Racial Equality

I have been in a hole for quite some time. A metaphorical hole of course, but what I mean by that is that somewhere along the way, the anger, hate, and violence that pervades our news became too much. It began to turn me from being a happy, outgoing, optimistic person into someone who was angry, depressed, anxious, and far less optimistic than I was before.

A few years back I stopped watching or reading the news. I deleted from my Twitter and Facebook feeds any news reporters, organizations, or individuals who talked about all of the strife in our politics, our communities, and our world at large. I didn’t want to hear it anymore; I wanted positivity in my life and in many ways, that was a smart decision. I do realize what a privileged position one has to be in to do such a thing, to be able to tune it all out and be free from it in my own backyard. I could just hide away in my suburban paradise, close my eyes to all the ills of the world, and just tend my own garden (wasn’t that Voltaire’s advice in Candide?).

I had become so adept at avoiding any negative news that I had learned to look for key words in social media posts I was reading and avert my eyes. For years, I did this so effectively. Then George Floyd entered my awareness.

Following mostly sports figures, sports writers, and happiness gurus on social media had so effectively shielded me from the world around me that I didn’t even know to avert my eyes when I saw George Floyd’s name all over my Twitter feed. I was curious.

Then I watch the video of it happening…all eight minutes and 46 seconds of it. And I cried. I screamed at Derek Chauvin to get off of him. I screamed at Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng to help George. They didn’t. I swore a lot. I used the Lord’s name in vain, which I rarely if ever do. And I cried. I couldn’t stop crying.

And then I woke up.

I looked hard into the mirror. How did I get here? How did I go from someone who had dedicated his life and career to fighting for equality and justice for all oppressed peoples, particularly those of color, to someone who is a virtual recluse? How did someone who spent his K-12 teaching career in Title I schools, who wrote a dissertation on culturally responsive teaching, and who pursued a PhD for the sole purpose of working with future teachers and having more influence on high-level decision makers in order to fight for social justice become someone who hides from it all?

I looked hard in the mirror.

I heard the calls for action. And this time was different. As absurd as it even feels to write this, I had become desensitized to injustice, blindly optimistic that it would all work itself out and we would just evolve. We would see that we are all connected, all from the same Creator, and that we are all in this together. I believe that deeply, to the depths of my soul. But it isn’t happening. It’s getting worse. And I can’t hide anymore. I won’t.

I heard the call for action. Not words. Not thoughts and prayers. Action.

So, I wondered what that could look like for me. Joining a march? Yelling loudly on social media about the blatant inequities that exist in our country and our world? How can I meld where I have come, someone who has learned about mindfulness, inner peace, and happiness with actively seeking change? I didn’t know. Then I looked harder in that mirror. Here is what I saw:

I had become so adept at avoiding any negative news that I had learned to look for key words in social media posts I was reading and avert my eyes. For years, I did this so effectively. Then George Floyd entered my awareness.

I saw that 24-year-old New York advertising executive with a successful career who gave it all away because he was called to something more. I saw that young man who, with his future wife, packed up all their belongings in their car, driving out to Denver for a job as an alternate route teacher (not traditionally trained and certified) in a Title I school. I saw myself, a kid who grew up white, working class, first surveying a group of students who didn’t look like, talk like, and sometimes think like the ones I had grown up with. I saw the young teacher who struggled, who had no idea what he was doing or who he was teaching, try to get them to fit into his educational experience. I saw that same teacher who worked tirelessly to improve his craft and more importantly, to get to know his students. Who were they as people? What did they care about? What did they worry about? What did they dream about?

And then I fell in love. I fell in love with the idea of being able to help young, black and brown students have fulfilling lives, of helping them navigate systems I know how to navigate, of helping them achieve their hopes and dreams. I didn’t see myself as the “white savior” so often portrayed in movies like Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers. I saw myself as someone who could help, who was taking action to be an ally in the struggle for social equity.

Then I took more action.

I put my money where my mouth was and I went back to school to earn a teaching certificate. More importantly, to learn the craft. For the first time in my educational life, I wasn’t just getting the work done or earning grades just good enough, I was thriving, like 4.0 GPA thriving. In that work I felt the call to work with our most highly impacted populations, to help them achieve the lives they wanted and to be on the proverbial front lines of the fight for racial injustice by empowering our youth with tools they have inside them to work for change. The least I could do is take my studies seriously.

Moving to being a full-time teacher, I felt the impact I was making, but what was most interesting is that I saw how much my students changed me. My perspective wasn’t the same. I wasn’t the same person. I heard their stories. I heard their struggles. I heard about how people look at my students of color sideways when they walked into a store. I heard about what we now call microaggressions such as a clerk not believing them when they had giving them incorrect change, only to find out at the end of the day that they had done just that. I heard the phrase “getting a DWB” for the first time (Driving While Black) and how getting pulled over scared them. I heard about how many students didn’t think college was even an option for them because there was no way they could ever pay for it. I heard about how “the system” was rigged against people of color in so many ways, with concrete examples of what that looks like. I could go on and on and on but suffice it to say, I learned from first-person accounts, what the experience is like for a person of color in the United States and it changed the way I saw things. I learned that they taught me far more than I taught them.

There is more to my story, but my story isn’t the point. My point is that action can take many forms. Action happens when we decide to care. When we see something that isn’t right and we do even the smallest thing to address it somehow, some way. For some, that might be not letting a racial slur or sly racial joke slide when we hear one. For some that might be volunteering at a local organization aimed at working with underrepresented youth in a community of color. For some that might be writing a lawmaker about changing a system of inequality that exists in their community. For some that might be joining a march, getting involved with an organization dedicated to social justice, running for office to fight for social justice, or even, becoming a teacher.

The point is, no matter what we do, so long as we have love in our heart and a belief that we are all equal, we are acting. We are saying that it is not OK to continue on as we have and acknowledging that things are not just going to work out. We are saying that this world is a better place when we all feel valued, safe, and loved. Right now, that isn’t our world, just ask any of our black and brown brothers and sisters, and somewhere along the line, I lost sight of that. For that I am deeply sorry. I won’t do it again. Our black and brown brothers and sisters are hurting and we are called to do what we can to help them heal and to fight for change in any way we can.

I call on all humans to act in some way, whether big or small, to fight for a world where every person, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or any other classification feels valued, included, safe, and loved.

As it mentions in our writer’s guidelines, Tales from the Classroom is about hope and possibility. It is a space where we aim to share the voices and stories of those working in or with the children in our schools. It’s a platform for action. Action because words matter, the stories of our children, our teachers, our administrators, our counselors, and our school staff matter and they can help lead to change. Through our action, our collective action, we can and will make change.

I pledge to all of you, I will no longer be a reclusive teacher. We cannot continue to let our black and brown brothers and sisters live in fear, be subject to structural inequities, and to quite frankly, be treated as less than or dangerous. We can and will do better but we have to act. We ARE our brother’s keeper. I join you in action for achieving equity and justice for all.

Bradley Conrad is an associate professor in the Education Department at Capital University (Columbus, Ohio) where he teaches in the teacher education and master’s degree programs. He holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Denver and has published several articles in the areas of curriculum, teacher dispositions, and culturally responsive pedagogy.