I was Trayvon Martin’s first grade teacher.

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Not literally. But man, that’s an attention grabbing title, isn’t it?

But I wrote that title because of my experiences working with low-income African American children in Waco’s inner city schools for the last half-a-decade, most recently as a first grade teacher. So I can’t help but read the news headlines and think about some of my former students. One of them particularly comes to mind, who I will call David. When I think of David, I wonder if I saw Trayvon as a first grader. Let me explain.

At the beginning of the year, I knew David was going to be a handful. I knew from his file, that he was on some pretty heavy medication for ADHD, and the way his ADHD fleshed itself out was quite a bit more pronounced than most little boys. David was not able to sit in his seat. I mean, he literally couldn’t stand being seated. If he was seated, he was fiddling with something. Throwing pencils, stealing crayons, or pulling out all sorts of little toys and other contraband from his hoodie pocket. I’m a slow learner, so it took me a while to realize that my job was to teach David, not to force him to sit in a seat. So I eventually made him a deal that as long as he was paying attention and doing his work he could stand up by his seat. That worked for most of the year until one day late second semester when he violated the terms of our agreement… I had turned around to write on the board and, much to my absolute horror, David decided to jump in the air and do a back flip in class! I almost peed my pants, I saw my teaching career flash before my eyes! But despite his hyperactivity, I saw that David had a genuinely sweet heart that never meant any harm.

I never met David’s dad, but he actually had a very involved mother. Whenever I had to call home about a behavior problem, she would come to school and sit in the back of the class… You should’ve seen the look on David’s face with his mom watching over him like a hawk! One phone call to that lady and he’d be on his best behavior all week! I appreciated the patient way she would speak to her son, and I could see that he both loved and respected her. But the thing I admired most about her parenting was that, at the suggestion of David’s physician, she signed him up for team sports to help him manage his energy and ADHD. However, his involvement in sports at such a developmental age made him prone to be very physical. It’s actually very difficult to teach physical children, because public schools are not designed to be very hands on. I tried to squeeze in as much physical learning as I could but I was constrained by curriculum and a few of the powers that be.

David was also prone to solving his problems in a physical way. Maybe it was his athletic personality, maybe it was the sort of movies he had seen, or maybe it was a lack of involvement form men in his life. (Probably a perfect storm of all three) But David would sometimes hit or shove others when he didn’t get his way. The temptation for me, and many other teachers, is to see violence and immediately think, “This is a bad kid. He’s a bully. Zero tolerance!” But there’s just something you can see in a kid’s eyes when they honestly, just don’t know another way to handle the problem. That was David. He didn’t want to be a bully. He just didn’t know what else to do. One day I pulled him aside and gave him the usual consequences for shoving, and then asked him why he did what he did.

“Because she took my spot!” He said.
“Okay. But could you have used your words? Shoving can hurt people. You don’t want to hurt people, do you?”
David stopped talking and started breathing heavily.
“David, how are you feeling right now? Your face is telling me you’re sad. Are you feeling sad?”
He nodded. At this point he was trembling.
“Do you need to cry, buddy?”
He shook his head.
“Boys don’t cry, Mr. Amberg. Boys are brave.”
“David, I think that sometimes crying is the bravest thing to do.”
And that was it. David burst into tears and he cried in my lap for a little while in the hallway. It was the saddest and sweetest thing I’ve seen in my time as a schoolteacher.

I’ve seen a lot of things on Facebook about the Trayvon Martin case. One of my conservative friends posted something illustrating Martin as a drug using delinquent who has been expelled from school multiple times. Directly beneath that a liberal friend of mine posted something portraying Martin as an honor student with a 3.7 GPA and a full scholarship to college. I laughed to myself at the state of our politics in this country. It seems that with the way our media is, we’ll never really know the truth about who this Trayvon Martin kid was. But I do know who the typical African American boy looks like in our country and school system. I know he faces a much more challenging set of circumstances than I could ever dream. I know that when he was younger he looked like David. And I know that he is my responsibility. He’s yours, too. And yes, he belongs to his parents and he is their responsibility first. But the point is this: if poverty was simple enough to be explained in a simple Facebook post, it wouldn’t exist within our great country anymore, would it?

So, regardless of what you think about the verdict of the Zimmerman trial, my simple query to you is this: what can we do beyond Facebook? You can say that this has nothing to do with race, but it is undeniable that there is a population in our country that is undergoing a crisis. African American males are dropping out of our schools, and being incarcerated in record numbers. Are they failing us or are we failing them? Maybe it’s both. I’m not trying to stir up political debate. I’m trying to stir up a meeting in between of left and right. Lord knows we have enough driving us apart in this country. So what would it look like if we really sat down, both black and white, and asked the hard questions of ourselves? We do a great job asking each other the hard questions, but I think we still have a ways to go in asking ourselves what sins we have committed against our neighbor. Can you imagine a day when all the racial groups in America raced to be the first to repent, rather than the fist to accuse. It might just be the saddest and sweetest thing we could go through for the betterment of our nation. I’ll keep praying for that day and doing my best to practice what I preach.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Micah says:

    Well said, sir.

  2. Megan Bond says:

    This is the story of about 70% of my students.

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