I wrote this three years ago, the week the Michael Brown died. I didn’t post it then because I wasn’t sure it would be helpful in any way. It was too much about me, too much from my own experience. But I have been struggling to find something to say during these past few days with the latest round of lamentation from our St. Louis community. I wish so hard that we would begin truth and reconciliation in this country, something that we have not yet had. So, I post it now, just in case it helps in some small way.
It has been a painful week here in St. Louis. A young man is dead. A young police officer’s life has changed forever (at best). The Band-Aid covering the wounds of the marginalized in our city has been ripped off, and their wounds laid to bare, and they are angry. We want to look away. Surely, it can’t be that bad, we think.
Much of their anger is directed at police.
My cousin’s husband was a police officer. Over twenty years ago, after the Rodney King riots, her daughter wrote a thoughtful piece about respecting the good police officers out there, rather than focusing on the few bad apples. In a small way, I understand her feelings. My parents were public schoolteachers, a much-maligned group if there ever was one. Whenever I hear people rant about teacher tenure or how teachers don’t really care about students or how they aren’t very bright, I feel disappointed and defensive. I can only imagine how compounded that disappointment must be when you or a loved one has a job in law enforcement, where even routine traffic stops can turn deadly. I feel it also at my job teaching at UMSL when my colleagues are maligned in a similar fashion. I feel attacked when the complaint is directed at me (and it has been).
It happens more often than I let on. In my role as advisor to writing students and as a writing instructor, students begin to feel comfortable complaining to me. I understand the frustration when faced with these complaints. It can be hard to listen to them, especially when the student is passionate and angry. Especially when that anger is thrown my way.
But here’s what I’ve learned: people who are hurting want someone to listen to them. Without judgment. Without the typical party line responses. On my good days, I take a deep breath and let them talk. I usually find that the outrage is about more than one instance with one instructor.
It’s about so much more.
I could say a lot more here. I could talk about students who walk long ways to catch a city bus to the Metrolink so they can come to class, when in reality they live closer to UMSL than I do but have no transportation. I could talk about domestic violence and the more than one occasion when I’ve had students living in threatening situations, and yet still come to class. I could talk about parents who work full time, take a full course load, and still bear the brunt of responsibility for childcare. I could talk of young women stalked by fellow students. I could go on and on. The truth is that when a student comes to me in anger that anger usually originates in fear and fatigue and stress.
When those students find me, I try to take a deep breath and listen. Once they realize I am listening, some of that stress goes away. There are often tears. There is sometimes anger. Slowly, I begin to ask questions. The questions cannot come too soon. They cannot sound accusatory. Often, I explain my reasoning for the question before I ask it, so as not to be misinterpreted. Usually, I can help them work through whatever it is that’s causing the problem at school. Often, it’s helping them understand the system, given that so many UMSL students are first-generation college students.
However, sometimes, their beef is not a mere misunderstanding of the system or of the faculty member’s expectations (or even just fatigue and stress). Sometimes it’s legitimate even when I know the offending party to be someone who has a big heart and who cares deeply about their students. That’s when it’s hard.
I am not perfect. I get frustrated and I know that I’ve not always responded appropriately. But I know that I must set aside my feelings, whatever they are, even those tired old feelings of “here we go again…the teacher is the villain…,” so that I can listen deeply. This can be profoundly difficult, especially when I am stressed and fatigued myself.
I understand how hard it is to listen to the pain.
This past week, many in the black community have expressed their distrust of the police (and that’s putting it mildly in some cases). Many of those voices are the voices of young black men. I know that it’s hard for police officers and their families to hear. I know that it’s uncomfortable for white people to hear. We want to believe that the racial injustices that have plagued our country are in the past. We are uncomfortable with the message these young black men are trying to send: that it is not in the past. That even good cops can have irrational fears of young black men (regardless of the specifics of this particular case). That so do we. And that fear is dangerous to them.
Some may ask: but what about the police? what about their families? They are people, too!
That’s true. They are. The police are also the authority, the ones with a badge and a gun. Not only is it appropriate for them to listen to the grievances of the community they have been hired to serve and protect, it is their responsibility. It is hard. I know. I’ve had to listen to hard things, albeit under very different circumstances, in my own job as a faculty member at a public university. One day, during my first semester back after a traumatic illness, a student dropped by my office because she was struggling in class. The situation she found herself in was complicated, difficult, and dangerous; it was destroying her ability to concentrate. As she told me about her situation (students are always reluctant to do so), I found myself wavering. You see, I was still suffering from trauma myself. Loud noises disturbed me. Strong emotions from others caused me nearly to faint. Her situation was so painful and so hard and so disturbing that I simply could not listen.
I almost vomited.
I concentrated on breathing through my nose. I checked with her to make sure she was in touch with the appropriate professionals. I whispered my advice about the class as succinctly as I could, and I prayed for her to leave, hoping against hope that she didn’t see a lack of compassion in my actions. It was hard. It would have been even worse if she were complaining about me or my colleagues (she was not). Yes, my situation was different, but I was traumatized. I have no doubt that many police officers are traumatized, too, just by the nature of their job. But it was NOT appropriate for me to tell her about my situation, to put my own trauma, fears, and needs ahead of hers. I was in a position of authority. It was my job to listen, even though I was barely able to. And so I listened the best way that I could.
The situation in Ferguson is disturbing for all involved, including the police. They need their support system. But minimizing the pain of the marginalized should not be a requirement for supporting the police.
The response to the death of Michael Brown is not just about the death of Michael Brown. It’s about so much more.
And we will not move forward until we listen deeply.