This week, from an hour north, we watched our hometown burn. We worried about my sister and my husband’s brother, who both live in Baltimore City, and obsessively read Facebook updates from other friends and family who still live in the area.
Yesterday my mother, who lives in Baltimore County, asked me if I was going to write about it and I told her no. What could I say that would matter? I don’t live there any more. I’m a white lady who lives in the suburbs and stays home with my children. But this morning it struck me that my own passive silence was contributing to the problem. We cannot continue to sit and watch and hope that someone else will create change, especially not those of us who are armed with the most powerful weapon on Earth–the pen.
So today I would like to tell you a story about one of the most terrifying moments of my life and one young man’s bravery in the midst of it.
Just last year, until a medical issue caused me to have to resign, I was a middle school teacher in a city school about an hour outside of Baltimore, with a very similar population. One day as our principal was in the middle of giving the morning announcements over the loudspeaker, she interrupted her own reading of the day’s lunch menu to say sternly,
“Teachers, lockdown immediately. This is NOT a drill. Immediate lockdown. I repeat, this is NOT a drill.”
We had done lockdown drills before, so my students knew what to do, but they were scared. I locked our classroom door and covered the windows and we all moved as far away from those windows as we could as we sheltered in place behind bookcases and under computer tables. We did not know why we were locking our doors. We didn’t know if there was a perpetrator in the building or waiting outside. We didn’t know if it was actually safer to stay where we were or to try to leave through the windows. I checked my school email and my text messages as often as I could, but no information was coming through. More and more time passed and, although I thought I was doing my best to be calm and comforting, the tension rose. Some of my students started to cry. Some of them started to pray. One young black man, I will never forget, the smallest boy in my class, looked into my eyes and whispered, “Don’t you worry, Mrs. Giese. We would never let him take you. You got kids. If he gets in here, I go first.”
Of course, I had no intention of letting that happen, and thankfully it never came to that. The person who was driving around our campus with a weapon sticking out of a car window actually left without incident. Later, that brave young man shared with me that he lost his older brother to gun violence and his brother’s children had lost their father. In that moment, when he honestly thought he might die, that young man had been thinking not of himself but of my children. The blonde haired, blue eyed children whose picture was on my desk. He was not about to let them lose their mother.
I do not pretend to understand the depths of the suffering that these children have lived through that has driven them to feel like they have no other options, because I have never experienced it myself. But I have held boys taller than I am as they mourned cousins lost to violence. I have started and run a cheerleading program for fifth grade girls with a $0 budget and learned that many, many more after school programs are needed so they have somewhere to go. Those girls were more grateful for the sweatshirts I picked up at the craft store and let them decorate with craft paint than I ever was for my personally tailored private school uniform. They just wanted to be seen and to be heard.
I have had children look into my eyes and ask me why someone hates them because of the color of their skin and, based on the other person’s behavior, it is usually easy to see why they are asking that question. I do not have the answer.
I’ve told them the same thing I would say to children who were being bullied, “Honey, I don’t know why, but sometimes people are scared of anything that is different than what they know. The only thing we can do is try to show people all the ways we are all the same and all the things that make you special.”
I don’t know any more what is the right thing to say and what is just rhetoric to comfort children.
What I do know is that destruction is only ever destructive.
It is time to start being constructive instead.
I know many people think that the racial divide is a figment of someone’s imagination.
I know I’m not racist.
I also know I almost didn’t write this because I’m white.