I was such a cute little girl. Seriously, look:
It is the wonder and innocence for me. I’m thankful that my parents were able to help me cultivate and nurture that wonder. They were always fierce protectors of me and my sibling’s education.
When one of my brothers was 8 or 9 years old, one of his teachers struck him during class. She took a book and heavily struck him across the head with it, causing him to fall to the ground. After protesting at the school and receiving not one apology from anyone on staff, my parents took all of us out of the schools and taught us at home. For years before this, they had struggled with the schools, and the abuse to my brother was the final straw. I’m so grateful I had the privilege of being protected in this way as a young child. My parents made learning full of fun and delight. They honored my wonder. They allowed me to dream.
When I got older and we went back to traditional schools, a different brother was beaten up by a white student 5 years older and much bigger than him – while in a school bathroom. My brother was not only much younger, he was in a knee-to-toe cast and on crutches. As a part of terrorizing my brother, he dunked his head in one of the toilets. That student was never held accountable for harming my brother. At the same school, I was selected to win almost all of the academic awards for my grade at the end of a school year. The day of the awards ceremony, the principal told me that instead of receiving my Science, Math, English, History and overall GPA award, I would only receive one or two of the awards. He said it wasn’t fair to the other students for me to get so many awards.
What I knew he meant was this: it is not fair for one of the only Black children in the school to get so many awards when the white kids aren’t getting any. I knew this in my spirit but I didn’t know how to say it or talk about it. Especially when it was normalized to beat up Black kids. I wish I’d had a school counselor at all and especially one who would believe me. These experiences hurt my wonder. How do you dream when you aren’t seen as fully human?
I wish my brothers hadn’t been physically assaulted in school. I wish our schools had culturally responsive classrooms and trauma-informed faculty and staff. I wish someone in the schools believed in us and kept our bodies and minds safe.
This word “safe” gets thrown around a lot, doesn’t it? What does it mean for us to protect children and keep them safe? What does it mean to treasure their wonder as my parents did for me and my siblings?
In our communities, some of us fear or believe that the police are the principal way to make us safe.
Would more policing in schools have protected my brothers? No. Especially not when racism is permissible.
Would an SRO have stopped my principal from racially dehumanizing my intelligence? No.
Would an SRO have made me feel safer? Not at my school, which was too racist for an SRO to disrupt, though perhaps they could have been another pleasant adult in my life alongside others. But being kind to me is different than equipping me to deal with systematic injustice and personal attacks. Being kind is different from being skilled at addressing mental health and trauma.
A trauma-informed therapist or school counselor could have helped me name and cope with the discrimination I was facing. If I had a safe space to process my feelings and not just absorb them in my body as a 12-year-old…wow! That could have changed my life at a young age! And what if progressive therapy had also been accessible to my teachers? Maybe they would have better known how to support a young Black girl.
If we believe safety in schools begins with having people to react to violence after it happens, then we are failing our children. Schools failed me and my brothers years ago. And we are indeed failing children today. But we don’t have to! We can let children be children. We can change school cultures so that there is an environment in which they have the things they need to feel affirmed, seen, cared for, and valued every day. We can provide them with medical, mental, and emotional care. We can ensure every adult who interacts with kids at schools is culturally responsive, trauma-informed, and grounded in values that cherish children.
We can dream with them.
In the words of artist/activist Andre Henry, “it doesn’t have to be this way.” We can protect the wonder of children and insist on letting a child be a child.
Please join us.