Tonight was our first Family Engagement Night. Based on our previous turnouts, I was not optimistic. I said to a colleague in the interim between the end of the school day and the start of the event that I’d be ecstatic if there were 12 people there. I did not have cause to be ecstatic. Still, I stayed for an hour or so because I had invited guests. I’d invited Daniel Gray-Kontar who does so many different and wonderful things.
His most recent (as far as I know) step has been this —
My administration wanted poets. Daniel wanted an opportunity to meet our administration, teachers, and parents. I thought it was a fair trade. In the end, we got the much better part of the swap. He and the two poets he brought, including De’John Hardges —
Their poems and their performances were amazing. I’d heard Brie Watts’ poem before. (I may be spelling her name before. I can’t find a link to any information about her or even a picture.) When I heard it both times, I thought it was about rape, about being raped. It was, Daniel explained afterwards, about being forced to leave home and become a slave in the United States. I suppose I wasn’t completely wrong. Hardges’ poem, I thought, was about the local drunk. Wrong again. Daniel explained how he coached his poets to take something they saw in the world around him and connect it to something larger. I’m sure he could explain it better than me. I am energized by spoken word. I want to get better at listening. I tend to think, “If only I could see that poem written down. . .” I also recognize, if I don’t always think I understand its power with our students, but I get wary that it’s creeping toward becoming a stereotype, that it – and I do believe it’s an action – is becoming a substitute for action.
I took pictures. Posted them on Facebook.
I left after that. There was, I had learned during the course of the day, a candlelight vigil for the student I wrote about last time. I’ve been wondering why I chose to keep him anonymous. This is the story —
I spent the day thinking about whether I’d go. My Assistant Principal was mildly discouraging. He wondered about safety. He said it was not his thing. I wrote back that maybe we white people needed to start making it our thing, but I was far from sure. But I went.
On the way, I saw a few of our students and offered them a ride. They were grateful to me, but they were the ones doing me a favor. They were my credibility. I’ll back up. Normally, I wear a shirt and tie to school. But on Wednesdays, we’ve been asked to wear college gear for fun and to help remind our students to focus on college. I was in jeans and a college shirt. I felt sloppy in front of the few parents. But as I was driving to the vigil, I was grateful. A white guy going to a candlelight vigil in a shirt tie. . . not good. The students were my ticket.
I’ve been reading and re-reading Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me with my students lately, and we’ve been trying to unpack the notion of losing one’s body. We all knew that Percy had lost his body. I got the sense as I was driving there that these students were, of all things, bodyguarding my body.
The vigil came up abruptly. I didn’t so much park as I just stopped. The students got out. I saw the Assistant Principal, that same one who wondered if he’d go. There were a few other teachers, one white. Overall, maybe 250 people, probably 30 of them our students, mostly girls. I stood with my AP. Another bodyguard. We both knew it. Since we were in the middle of the street and for a few other reasons, I asked my AP about the police, whether they just leave these kinds of things alone. He said, “Yeah, as long as nothing gets out of hand. But they’re here.” I looked around. I looked for people taking pictures. I was glad I was not in a shirt & tie.
Mostly, I listened. Someone was leading a prayer. There were smells – incense, marijuana. There were liquor bottles, a few being spilled. Someone started shouting: “What do we want?” “Justice.” “Who do we want it for?” “Percy.”
The etymology of ‘vigil’ comes from Latin and Old French and means ‘awake.’ The etymology of ‘vigilante’ —
from Spanish vigilante, literally “watchman,” from Latin vigilantem (nominative vigilans) “watchful, anxious, careful,” from vigil (see vigil). Vigilant man in same sense is attested from 1824 in a Missouri context. Vigilance committees kept informal rough order on the U.S. frontier or in other places where official authority was imperfect. (Online Etymology Dictionary)
I started to get nervous. Since Percy was killed, I’ve wondered about his good friend, also our student. Finally, I spotted him. My AP wanted to talk with him to find out who the decision maker was because he had some information about a funeral home that had offered to take care of the arrangements. The student, shirtless, walked by me. I’m sure he saw me, but he didn’t seem to see me. Was that, for a moment, what Ellison means by being invisible? I said nothing.
I looked around at the mass of people in the street, leaning on cars, by a house (Percy’s, I think) and wondered whether I’d invited Daniel and De’John and Bri to the wrong place – whether their words would have done more good at the Vigil than they did at our Family Engagement Night, our event that engaged so few families.
My AP went over to meet the decision maker, asked but really told me to walk with him. I did. His information passed on, he was ready to leave. So was I. I’d seen and been seen. I’d learned. . . what? I just noticed that WordPress provides me with a word counter in the corner. I’ve written 1,023 words.
I still don’t know what I’ve learned.