My middle school students are all fairly tough. They live in dangerous neighborhoods, they’ve had family members deported or incarcerated, many of them work to help pay the rent. But I’ve got one who’s just a shade tougher than the rest. He’s smart and well-behaved and does his homework, but last week he came to school and his knuckles looked like he’d gone at them with a cheese grater. He wrote a story for my class about some really ridiculous illegal activity, and this is the letter I wrote him.
You are just delightful. I say that sarcastically sometimes, I know, but not now; you truly brighten up my day every time you walk through my classroom door. You’re quiet, you’re focused, and— most importantly—you laugh at all my jokes. And your story for the comedy unit? Legitimately funny, like the stuff you write in your journal.
But I’m not just writing to tell you how much I love you and enjoy having you as a student.
I also need for you to know that I’m afraid for you. The stuff you’ve written about…fistfights, arrests (and I know they didn’t charge you, but they could have, and I’m not sure you fully realize how incredibly lucky you were), these are things that for some kids would be youthful hijinks. Shenanigans, if you will. “Boys will be boys.” But not for you.
You’re twelve, right? Maybe thirteen.
But you’re tall, and you could easily pass for sixteen or seventeen. Remember that article we read in class, the one that said people perceive black and Hispanic kids, especially boys, as an average of three to four years older than they actually are? I look at you and I see a smart kid bound for a private high school and a good college. But there are those who would look at you and see a dangerous man. That thought breaks my heart, and it scares me.
Stealing and fighting are bad ideas for anyone, don’t get me wrong. It was idiotic, and I hope being arrested scared the hell out of you so you won’t do anything that stupid ever again. You got lucky that a police officer looked at you and saw you for the idiot kid you are (no offense; all middle schoolers are idiots—you’re actually one of the smartest idiots I know), rather than a threat to his safety. But for a child of color, that’s not always how it works. Your teenage bad judgment could deprive you of your future or, God forbid, your life.
Don’t read this as a lecture on what’s wrong with you.
You do stupid things because you’re a kid, and that’s what kids do. (Really, though? What you did was epically stupid. And it was wrong, and you know that.) This letter is not about what’s wrong with you; it’s about what’s wrong with the world we inhabit. Around here, rich boys get a slap on the wrist and poor boys go to prison for the same crimes. White boys pay fines and brown boys die in the streets. Some people will see you as a threat, and many people react violently when threatened.
You should be able to make mistakes and learn from them.
That is your fundamental right as a kid. (But I am not condoning your actions, am I clear?) But you can’t. Or, rather, you can only until you get caught by the wrong person in the wrong place. You are loved, son, and you have too much to offer this world to lose your life over a stolen Gatorade.
I’m sorry, so sorry, that this is the world we have to offer you. Some of us are working hard to change it…you will change it. But I want you to grow up to do that. Be smart. Be careful. Remember that your life is precious to many, many people, and keep yourself safe.
One of our WeAreTeachers community members shared this story with us. She asked to stay anonymous to protect her student’s identity, but we thought her words were worth sharing.