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A Creature of Epiphanies | 2016 | A Light through the Forest


A beautiful death is for people who have lived like animals to die like angels.  

-Mother Teresa

My Students' Lives Matter

If you are looking for an easy agreement with whatever you believe about the Black Lives Matter movement - pro or con - you won't find it here. I deal with young black boys on a daily basis, all who have committed crimes to be sentenced to six or more months in residential placement. My students are the likeliest to be in front of a police officer's gun, if not today than soon. They have a combination of brashness and bravado, mixed with so low a societal rank that they feel they can only survive by committing crimes.

They do not make easy examples of the fundamental value of a human life. They boast of mugging old women for the crime of being white and therefore rich - to them, lightness of skin equates to heaviness of wallet. I understand that my students are hard to sympathize with. A majority of them have since their accidental births heard how little loved they are. Society has made them feel unwelcome and they have responded in kind. They are obnoxious and oppositional on a daily basis. They claim to see nothing wrong with rape and murder, usually to get a rise out of the gullible. I try to shield myself from their rap sheets so I don't have to feel the unwanted urge to judge them. None of this means that they should meet their end on a dirty street, but I know that it makes their suicide-by-cop so much more likely. They deserve correction and, for some, incarceration should that fail, but they do not deserve execution for the sin of being more wild than most teenage boys.

The majority of my students are black (next come Hispanic boys, then white ones. I've only had one Asian student in my five years working in juvenile justice). They just get punished more severely for crimes that would get a wrist-slap and community service were they white.

As the media likes to trot out when a black person has been murdered, after combing through the deceased's history, my students are no angels. However, their sullied souls do not mean they ought to be corpses. In a truly civil society, we would help clean them up and send them on their way back into society.

I have taught a boy who went on to murder someone, because he had a vendetta and a head full of hormones. I did my best to educate a young man who went on to commit a brutal gang rape. Either one of them could have easily have made the wrong move in front of a cop and ended up a headline for a weekend, one side of the comment sections explaining how they were blameless in their deaths and the other unfurling a litany of every time they transgressed. I know from experience that it is a mental strain to look at a boy who savaged a young girl and believe that his life still has worth.

I don't want my students to be your hashtag. I want them to grow up and out of their bad situations and behavior. I want to hear in two years that they are still going to school and are about to graduate. My daily lessons and interactions with these boys take on weightiness. I can never really know when some small kindness or tiny success helps remove my charges from an early obituary.

I don't forgive their crimes. That is not my role. I am their teacher for however long they are sentenced to my facility. Many of them need comprehensive rehabilitation so that they may one day function in society without trying to tear it and themselves to shreds. They have repeatedly hurt people because they were taught no other way. However, their crimes are not deserving of bleeding out in a parking lot.

No matter how this sounds, I like my students. They are constantly challenging, but who wants an easy job? They are young men who never had the chance to be little boys, who melt into childhood when finally given a space safe enough to explore. They show me the cruelty of the world, much of which they have absorbed and regurgitated, but they also show me the potential of redemption before they become hardened. They are the hope that lives can be saved with gentleness and caring.

Yet they will be the statistic that people try to hide, the video that no one thinks makes a good example for Black Lives Matter, though either all lives matter (if you can forgive that phrase) or none do. If you are able to pick and choose which young black boy deserves to be executed in the streets by a cop with an itchy trigger finger, you don't actually believe that black lives matter. You just want a photogenic and pristine victim on whom you can project your despair at this systematic injustice.

I don't want to have to sit through the arguments that one of my former students deserved to have his brain splattered on pavement. I know I will one day. My residents are reactionary. Several are intellectually disabled. They will flail and spit because their computer time is up. They will throw furniture because they failed a class where they never put forth any effort, so used to being pushed through grades so teachers didn't have to deal with them any longer. They buck any authority because they grew up with parents who didn't understand how to treat children. They will feel a surge of machismo when a police officer draws a gun on them, when I would do all I could not to die that day. They will challenge the officer. They will threaten him. And they will die for it. Then, most of the world will strip them down to a name or a record.

Soon in Xenology: Faces.

last watched: He Never Died
reading: Hogfather
listening: Patty Smyth

A Creature of Epiphanies | 2016 | A Light through the Forest

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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