So many interactions with students are not in the classroom – running into kids in the hallway, outside the cafeteria, in the library, hanging out in my room after class. Most of these conversations are positive; I love when students stay after Creative Writing to gush over whatever book they’re currently reading, or a group of girls want to have lunchtime discussions about race and gender with me and my colleagues.
Some of these interactions are demoralizing, however. Earlier this week, I was packing up my room about an hour after the school day. Not many students were still in the building, so my attention was piqued as soon as I heard a young woman’s nasal voice repeatedly whine, “Nooooo! Leave me alone! Ughhhhh!”
I happened to be walking out that direction anyway, so I exited my room and locked the door behind me, catching a glimpse of my 4th period student “Jenni” – a petite and feisty sixteen-year-old Latina – standing in front of a tall young Black student I didn’t know. He was leaning against the lockers outside a classroom full of other students, some extra-curricular club. It didn’t seem that they were connected to the other students, but they weren’t moving either. I quickly assessed their body language: her hunched shoulders, his rolling eyes, their close bodies.
“Hey Jenni,” I called out, trying to keep my voice light, “Is this guy bothering you?”
And the situation exploded.
“Oh, just because I’m a guy, I gotta be bothering her?!?!” he spat. “I see how it is. I know what you teachers think. Everybody in society gotta assume… Jumpin’ to conclusions…” A stream of expletives flew under his breath.
“Um, well…” I tried to backpedal. “The only reason I asked that is because I heard Jenni say ‘Leave me alone.’ I mean, if I had heard you say that I’d be asking if she was bothering you. Had nothing to do with the fact that you’re—”
“Nope, I know what you see. I’m a guy so I must be hurtin’ her. And I’m Black. Man… F— this.” He walked away.
Jenni yelled after him, trying to defend me and the fact that I was only trying to help. The second he turned the corner, her whole body sagged. “Are you okay?” I asked. She turned away from me. “Yeah. I’m fine.” I stood there dumbly as she walked away in the direction of her companion.
Every second of teaching is a moment of judgment. Do I say this, or that? If I call a kid out for looking at his phone right now, does this become a power struggle? If I misspeak when I’m talking about race or gender or class, do I simply reassert all of my students’ mistrust in white female teachers? Their moods are so changeable, so the joke that went well yesterday may cause them to flip out on you the next. The classroom, even in the best of circumstances, can be full of landmines.
But this small interaction – all of three minutes – was no less loaded. I wonder now, should I have spoken up at all? What if I had decided to avoid the situation and exit a different way, knowing that there was a room full of people a few feet away who could take care of it if things went badly? What if Jenni really was being harassed, and I walked by and said nothing? What if I simply said, “Hi Jenni” and kept going? Would she think I didn’t care about her? What if I had said something less gendered, less authoritarian: “Hey guys, what’s up?” I will never know.
The next day, I passed the two of them on the sidewalk as I left the building. “Hey Jenni, thanks for reading for Walter today.” We had begun reading A Raisin in the Sun not a half an hour before. “You were great!” I smiled. “Thanks,” she said. They didn’t seem to be angry. Clearly, they are friends. But he avoided my eyes as I walked by, and I know that I did nothing but confirm his ideas that teachers, that school, that women, that white people see him as a threat, as a target, and not as a person.
And I feel like I failed.