Trayvon, and George for that matter, did not choose to be a symbol for anything, to stand for anything, to ignite commentary for anything. He was a boy walking home with a hoodie and a man driving through a neighborhood with a gun. Yet, when senseless events happen it is our natural, human, humane response to search for meaning.
Trayvon cannot come back. We can, however, try to live our lives with the promise he held.
The meaning I find in these events this morning may not be the same as yours. Here, though, is my attempt at living a promise forward.
Through my eyes, when George saw Trayvon that night he saw fear. I believe it was fear because Trayvon was a teenager, fear because he was male, fear because he was in hoodie, and fear because he was black.
Fear is stored at the core of our brains, the literal very center. It is housed in a tiny bunch of neurons, not much bigger than a few almonds. It is the same core we share with other animals. Fight or flight. Survive. That central core takes over. We act.
The human brain is different from other animals, however, in an essential way. The large lobes surrounding that central core control memory, senses, movements, what we say, what we hear, what we see, and how we perceive. They are the largest and most complex of all known mammals. They allow us to make decisions, to build up long term memories and ideas, to learn.
In other words: while all animals learn to fear, we humans can unlearn.
We fear most the unknown.
I recall the run up to the 2008 elect when the term “Muslim” was thrown about as if it were a four letter word. During that same year I began work in Amman, Jordan. I believe all people aim to be good and there is beauty in every heart, but to be honest I did have some apprehension. I was flying to a part of the world I had never been, a part that was in the midst of two wars, violence. Daily media images here in the US showed roadside bombs, chanting crowds. I did not think I would be walking into a war zone, I knew better than that. I did, though, wonder how I as an American would be perceived. I did fear I would make cultural mistakes. I did, truthfully, wonder if I would be safe.
When I arrived I immediately unlearned. I met mothers and fathers who loved their children. Adults who loved sports, complained about gaining weight, cracked jokes, believed in the power of education. Children who horsed around, laughed, wrote, smiled, dreamed. Each person could have lived next door to me. We were the same. The fear left. I unlearned “Muslim” “Middle East” “Arab” and relearned them all over again, in a more personal and real way.
The essential ingredient in unlearning, I am convinced, is conversation.
Not conversations about deep issues like race in America–though that is important, and should happen–but conversations about the every day, mundane, boring, stuff of life. A cup of coffee and complaining about your partner, a nibble of lunch and talking about the weather. When we communicate we see our sameness.
George saw Trayvon that night and, in my opinion, thought “black,” “teen,” “male,” “hoodie” and saw fear. George is not the only one, though. While most of us would not pull out a gun, how many may have held their purses more tightly, moved more quickly, gone a new way? How many would have stopped to have asked if he was okay, needed a ride, offered an umbrella in the rain?
Fear is not destiny. It is learned. It can be unlearned.
Living Forward a Promise as Educators
As an educator, I immediately turn to what we can do to help future George Zimmermans not fear future Trayvon Martins. To not repeat a tragedy. Here are my thoughts, I would love to hear some of yours.
- Have sister-schools that are more than a once a year charity benefit. Some schools, not enough I think, have “sister schools,” one or more schools either near or far that they partner with, often times to raise money for their supplies. What if, instead, we made these sister-schools just like our actual sisters: visit them as often as we can, get together to talk, and play, and share stories. Sometimes they come to our house, sometimes you go to theirs. With Skype visits to fill in the gaps. Connections matter. Conversations matter.
- Less “big” conversations and many more small ones. In times like these responsive schools hold assemblies or classrooms conversations. These are all important. However, we learn and unlearn through practice and repetition. Many small, short, conversations matter much more across time. Equally, mundane, daily-life-stuff conversations matter when talking with people who do not look like you, or do not talk like you, or do not believe what you believe.
- Question the divisions in your school, district, city, state, country. The larger weight on us, as educators, is continually asking the hard questions. Is it okay that a school’s special education population has a disproportionate percentage of minority students? Have that conversation. It is okay that our school has books and supplies but the school on the other side of our district, in the less affluent area, does not? Have that conversation. Is it okay that young men are dying daily on the streets of the city we once per year drive our buses through to take our students to see a museum? Have that conversation.
- Challenge your own fears, perceptions, ideas. Finally, it is a time to take stock of your own learned fears and challenge them. The example we live has more impact on our students then the words we say.
We can write a new future, live out a promise lost.