A much-needed choice

August 1, 2015 - 12:00am -- Living City

A much-needed choice
One teacher’s way to reconciliation in troubled Baltimore

I have been in a Baltimore City Public School for the past 10 years teaching students with special needs. Many come from poverty and drug-stricken areas. The majority of the children are raised by their grandmothers or single mothers. In some cases a father figure is absent.

A few months ago a part of the city was engulfed in fire as protestors showed their anger over the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who was injured while being detained by police and who later fell into a coma and died. Stores were burned; bricks and rocks were thrown at the police, whom they held responsible for Gray’s death.

While the historic area of West Baltimore was ablaze, Christian and Muslim leaders gathered to march and pray in the streets, chanting the name of God, Allah and Jesus Christ according to each one’s faith tradition. Their desire was to bring the presence of God into the midst of the “war” between protesters and police. When I heard about this, I called up my supervisor, who is Muslim, and we each offered a prayer for peace in our city.

The following day, 100 parishioners and volunteers from my Catholic parish of St. Peter of Claver, located where the riots took place, went out to clean and clear the streets that were filled with filth, burned tires and bricks. We were convinced that it was up to each one of us to do something to restore peace in our city.

Later, while watching the news, I caught sight of a previous student who was now in third grade and who had joined the protest. He was featured on TV, being one of the youngest protesters. He was caught holding bricks and throwing them at the police. It caused me pain to see my young student joining the angry crowd.
Returning to school we were instructed to debrief our students and find out who among them felt traumatized by the immensity of the destruction. One of my students appeared confused and continually expressed his anguish. He blamed the police, and he wanted to be a part of the crowd in the streets.

The following day, while I was about to begin my lesson, this particular student left his desk, picked up a trashcan and threw it at me. I was shaken by this sudden outrage. A discarded milk carton spilled on me and all the trash landed on my table.

This physical attack was an act of violence against my person. The school administrators searched for the student, who meanwhile had left the building. He was found attempting to steal soda from a nearby convenience store. The following day, an emergency meeting was held with a representative from the school district, administrators, related service providers and the mother of the student. During the meeting I was struggling about whether to press charges or to listen to an ongoing dialogue, trying to find solutions that  could help the student to overcome his traumatic experiences.

I felt I had to experience that violent incident in the classroom, in order to be able to discern what was happening in the daily lives of my students outside the classroom. I realized that God put me in a situation where I could choose to aim at forgiveness and reconciliation. In the end, my student was suspended and was granted a temporary adult support on his return.

After five days of suspension, I found out that the student’s mother and her five children had become homeless. They transferred to temporary housing, far away from my school. Eight days after the suspension, my student showed up again. He was clutching his backpack closely to his chest, as it contained his few belongings.

I had talked about the suffering I was experiencing with my close friends, who have helped me in this journey of focusing on dialogue and putting myself in the shoes of my students. This gave me the strength to welcome the child back and see him with new eyes. I was also grateful for the support of an aide, who helps my student calm down every time he has a meltdown. However, in just two weeks, five temporary adult supports had already left him. They could not bear the verbal abuse and physical aggression he displayed.

I too struggle each day with his challenging behavior, but I am comforted by how the other students ignore his outbursts. Like me, the majority of my students have taken the step of keeping peace by showing kindness and respect.