I never actually heard the racial epithet that rocked my classroom, but the fallout from that single hateful word was heard throughout the entire school.
It began with two high school students, one white, one African American - both young men. The actual incident involved an innocent piece of paper that ended up on the ground and the accusation that it landed there on purpose. Something so simple, hardly even the hint of a spark. But it took little more than a spark to fuel a fire that was always lurking in the embers of this rural southern school.
The white boy threw the verbal Molotov cocktail.
It's been nearly ten years since those boys hurled their desks to the floor, threw punches at one another, ended up suspended, and stirred up anger and resentment among their peers. But I still spend nights thinking about what I might have done to prevent the conflict, and what I should have done afterwards to see that it was resolved.
The school where I was teaching had been for "whites only" until desegregation laws forced a change. Though it had been decades since the laws went into effect, my fellow teachers could tell harrowing stories of their days as the first class of African American students to step across the threshold. In a poor rural county where the farm owners could easily trace their ancestry back to before the Civil War, the scars of slavery and its aftermath ran deep, even in 2000. It was rumored that this county still housed an active branch of the KKK.
This history that clung to the mini-skirts and jerseys worn by my students baffled me. I was new to the south, new to rural life, and blissfully unaware of the complexities of living and learning in a historically racist community - thanks in large part to my upbringing in the Bay Area of California.
But in retrospect all of this is an excuse, one I use to comfort me when I think about that day in my classroom. It's vital to understand the context in which our students exist, but it's not okay to use that knowledge as an excuse for our inability to help them function there.
You see what's missing from the story I've told so far is me. Where was I? I was standing in the front of the room, frozen with panic. And after the immediate smoke had cleared, I actually tried to go back to my lesson. I'm not proud of one second of that story. I'm deeply disturbed that it happened in the first place.
It was my job as a teacher to create a classroom community that was safe from that kind of hatred. And though I am not naive enough to think I could undo decades of entrenched racism in a single semester, at the very least I could have made the effort to have courageous conversations with the students about this reality in their lives. After the conflict I should not have pretended like it didn't happen - for that only furthered the hurt. I should have found a productive way to talk about it with my students so we could determine as a community how to prevent such a thing from occurring again.
The way I handled the conflict in my classroom was no different from how my peers had been handling it for years. The fact that it happened in my classroom was nothing unique to me - it happened in other classrooms all the time. But as a teacher I had the power, and I would argue the responsibility, to play a role in history not repeating itself. I taught English, but I probably would have made a greater impression on the lives of my students if I had focused more on teaching the skills of conflict resolution.
Teachers, like all other people on this planet, learn from their mistakes. But because we work with young, impressionable human beings - there are greater ramifications when we make those mistakes.
Today the young people from that class are in their late-twenties. They are out working in the wide world, making lives for themselves and leaving impressions on the lives of others. When I think of my old students I find that I don't wish they remembered reading Thoreau or Hughes or even that they are writing in personal journals. Today all I wish is that they they are kind.