I initially wrote this piece in 2013, the day George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin. I think of it often. I think of him often, of Trayvon. Every time I do, I cry. Because he was the first one that really hit me. The day he was shot, I was teaching in a classroom in Dallas, and I watched a group of black teenage boys, almost grown men, cry and shake and hold each other up. It was the first time I had seen this with someone else’s eyes, the eyes of people not up to their necks in racial privilege.
I’m not proud to say that, had it not been for my context, had I not seen the fallout with my own eyes? I would probably still be preaching the good old trusty “people who don’t break rules don’t get shot” sermon. It would be easy, and I would think it true. I am grateful daily for my context at that time. I am grateful for all the ways I have had my ass handed to me in the past five years, my privilege as a straight, white, wealthy woman brought to light. I needed it. I still need it. I still have so much to learn. And while I’m grateful that I get to learn, that many of us are working to do better, I am unbearably sad that so damn much blood has had to be spilled, just to inspire us to want to.
In a different world, Trayvon would have turned 23 yesterday.
My heart is achy and messy, and I don’t understand the world. I only understand that, for the past day, I have been longing for this brutal world to be set right more than ever. Which is maybe the only point that can come out of babies dying, grown and gangly and beautiful teenage babies.
In moments like this, I don’t even know how I got here, how I became the woman who fractures and breaks over this. And I just keep thinking about one person.
He was a boy in the body of a grown black man, four solid inches taller than myself, a sophomore at the charter school where I did my first two years of teaching. We’ll call him J. My second year of teaching was his first year at that particular high school, and I was finally starting to feel like I had my feet somewhat planted as a teacher. The first year felt pretty terrible, to be honest. From what I hear, most first years of teaching do; but in addition to being my first year of teaching, I was also a very sheltered white girl who ended up being thrown into a charter school full of very poor inner city high school kids. My privilege did not buy me any thing in that building. I was not a hero, and there was no shortage of kids ready to see me throw up my hands, cry, and walk out within the first month.
I didn’t, even though I wanted to on an ungodly number of occasions, and time to sign a new contract for the next year popped up. And at that point, somewhere in May of my first year of teaching, I realized something crazy; it was starting it a little bit like home.
So I signed on and came back for my next year. And there sat J, in the middle of my sixth period choir class. And oh, that kid hated me. From where I stood, he had a smart mouth and a bad attitude. He pushed, and pushed, and pushed. For a solid two months. Five days a week. One hour a day. All I could do was stand my ground and keep trying to teach him.
And then it happened. Honestly, I don’t really know what happened. I don’t think there was a defining moment. There was no confrontation, no declaration from me about how much I believed in him and wanted him to be successful, no sudden movement. Just a slow and steady shift. He pushed a little less. Laughed a little more. Then laughed a lot more.
And then something insane happened. He became a leader in my classroom. He became the kid I knew I could count on to do exactly what I asked him to do the first time. He became the kid that would laugh and joke and mess around, and then cut it out if I so much as raised an eyebrow. He stayed after class for tutoring, to listen to music, to play the piano.
Somewhere shortly after Christmas, my kids were teaching me how to Dougie in the last five minutes of class. And J sat there smiling and watching me make an idiot out of myself and said, “Ms. Hibbs, you ain’t even a white girl. You a light-skinned black girl.” And I laughed until I cried, until my stomach hurt, and I knew that I would not ever forget that child.
I remember coming in one Saturday that year for a training session, learning how to handle the situation if an armed intruder ever entered the school. J was there for basketball practice, and asked me why the teachers were there on the weekend. I told him about the training, how we were learning to protect them if someone tried to hurt them. I will never forget the look on his face, the way his eyebrows shot up.
“Miss. Ain’t no disrespect, but they ain’t nobody gonna get a chance to get a bullet through you unless it come through me first. You crazier than I thought you were if you think I’m gone hide in a corner and let you protect me after everything you done for me.”
And I smiled, and said, “Touché.” And then I walked out to my car and bawled like a child.
The day Trayvon Martin died, I bawled like a child again. Because I remember the handful of days I walked past J in the hallway, pulled the black hood of his hoodie off his head for him, and said, “Dress code.” And he’d smile and say, “I know, Miss. Sorry.” I remember the days at the beginning of the year when I thought J was a punk. Moments of fear when I realized that if he got angry, truly angry in class, I couldn’t do a thing to stop him from hurting me or someone else.
The day Trayvon Martin died, I bawled like a child because I could all too easily cut and paste my boys, the babies I spent 40 hours a week investing in, into his place. It could so easily have been one of mine, and I could feel loss clawing at my own throat, all aching and hot and ragged edges.
Today, I feel that same loss, and I feel the tears coming. Because I see the personhood of a young boy and the absurdity of his premature death being lost in the abyss of two “solutions” that are taking shape. One taking shape in the form of violence and rioting and revenge. And the other taking shape in the form of unimaginable callousness, the kind of callousness that makes me so livid I can barely contain it. And neither of these solutions are a solution. They feed each other. Callousness breeds, “How the hell does this not matter to you?” Which breeds violence. Violence breeds, “See how you’re living and acting? You sow what you plant.” Which breeds callousness. And on and on it goes.
Oh, Church. Please. Please engage in the brokenness of this world. Do not shrink away. Please acknowledge the absolutely unimaginable tragedy of a child dying. Of a human being lost way too soon, for whatever reason. Please, just once, be as passionate about the loss of young black men every day as you are about the loss of unborn babies. Be as passionate about the loss of young black men every day as you are about elementary schools being invaded by gunmen. Because I believe that we are children of a God who cares about them all. I believe that we are children of a God who weeps at the brokenness of His creation. And it is that weeping, that engaging of a God, and the weeping and engaging of His church that will change the violence.