I’m supposed to be grading papers, but the Ferguson news is breaking and it’s reminded me of what I’ve been trying not to think about all day, which is the fact that one of my students from back in the 90s – one of my favorites – died this weekend.
I hadn’t seen him years and I don’t know many details, but I know life had been rough for him after high school. I know he was arrested this year. I know that in most books his death will be just be another statistic. Another black man that died too young.
But I just went to my basement and got out a photo book with pictures of all my students and all of our trips and get-togethers, and I just started weeping because you can see it in the pictures what I really know about him: how funny and spirited he was, and how we had a special bond.
There he is standing under a microphone at the Motown recording studios with all eyes on him. There he is posing like a gangster with his Wendy’s hamburger. There he is embracing his classmates at the graduation dinner.
He was part of a scholarship program (the Marianist Urban Students Program at Purcell Marian High School in Cincinnati) that I directed back in the late 90s. I had 20 high school students each year, and I took them to Detroit and Cleveland and Gatlinburg, made them ride horses and make gingerbread houses, & brought them to see Colin Powell and Maya Angelou. I cheered them on at their sports games and took them to watch the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. When I got pregnant, the moms and girls threw me a surprise baby shower, and a couple of the girls babysat after my daughter was born. When I took the group to the African American History museum in Detroit, the parents introduced me to my first soul food restaurant.
As director of that program, I was young and naive, dreamy and ambitious. I was a young white girl driving to black neighborhoods clutching my ridiculous clipboard. I met with parents and grandparents. I discussed goals and devised study plans. I took the students on college visits. I wanted to change their lives.
I wanted to change their lives, but as a white girl from the suburbs, I had no idea what their lives were about. I didn’t know that they didn’t need to be changed. I didn’t understand that the “system” – what my current students call “society” – was was what needed to be changed. I didn’t understand that its history and laws and prejudices were so much vaster and deeper than my whiteprivilege mind could fathom. I thought that a study plan and a few poems by Langston Hughes could fix things up.
I wanted to change my students’ lives. But what is obvious now more than ever is that they changed mine.
* * *
Freeman. That was his last name; that’s what I called him.
Freeman, for what it’s worth, this is for you.