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Fear and Resilience: For Trayvon Martin

posted: 7.29.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Ramarley Graham,  Sean Bell, Timothy Thomas, Emmett Till,  and now Trayvon Martin — young Black men whose deaths were preventable and whose accused killers were acquitted by law. The list of young Black men who have died under these difficult circumstances is much much longer. Why does this topic belong in a blog called “Beyond the Basics”?  Because these young men, and their sisters, cousins, aunts, mothers and daughters, are my students — and yours. Because the impact of such loss crushes even the most resilient of communities. Communities learn to bounce back time after time after time.  But the need to bounce back seems unequally distributed.

As teachers we are responsible for fostering resilience. At the same time, we as teachers need to educate ourselves about the circumstances that create obstacles to resilience. Perhaps the most significant of these obstacles remains our own fear of the unfamiliar, of moving outside of our comfort zones, of confronting the tensions that separate and divide communities from each other.  In my many years as a teacher, one incident stands above all others in demonstrating the necessity of stepping outside of our comfort zones. On a fine spring day long ago, I learned the price that all of us pay when communities allow fear to overcome civility, and refuse to engage with those whom they perceive to be outsiders.

The students in my basic writing course, mostly Black and Hispanic, had been reading about social injustice and asked for a field trip to our city’s holocaust museum. We arranged to meet there early on a Friday afternoon. Shortly after our arrival at the museum,  I realized that the docents and other workers were afraid of the students. The museum people kept their distance from us when we entered, raised their voices when we asked for information , and prohibited the students and me from attending a lecture that was clearly opened to the public. Since these docents and workers shared my ethnic background and religious heritage, I felt even more frustration. The students had asked to visit this museum. They wanted to learn. And here was my community acting unfriendly and unkind, acting with manners I did not see them use toward the more expensively dressed and apparently white students who were visiting the museum that day.

On that day,  I felt at my nice white lady worst . I did not know what to say to the students. So I apologized. “Don’t worry, Miss,” the students assured me. “People treat us like this all the time.”  Although I was not  assured at all,  I worked hard not to make my discomfort the focus of our visit. As we looked at the prayer books and other relics in the museum I tried to read aloud and translate what I could. I emphasized traditions of working for peace and seeking justice. But my heart felt heavy. I vowed to myself to tell this story and I have, several times. But this is the first time I have written it down for publication.

I had intended to write my first post about my move to the southwest. And in a sense I have, because the moment I stepped off the plane and into the airport terminal of  my new city,  I spotted a TV broadcasting serious faces from CNN. “It must be the verdict,” I said to my spouse. We asked someone at the gate what had happened and that was how we discovered that George Zimmerman had been acquitted of legal responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin. My heart sank with this news. At the same time, I remembered the necessity to foster resilience. In difficult circumstances, perhaps resilience functions best as a version of the absurd.We need to foster the conditions for believing–  despite all available evidence– that a better world is possible. We need to keep working for that world, and studying all the history that we can so that we understand that Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal are not isolated incidents, but related to similar trials throughout US history.  We need as well to reexamine our own connections to history.

This work is neither easy nor straightforward. Yet as teachers, we need to address our own fears and to practice resilience in an atmosphere of apathy or despair. As my student, Bronx writer Taren Gilmore suggested: “Judge by the content of our character not the color of our skin or the clothing we may wear. The image we may give off.. the fear we may instill.”  As I learned on the day of that long ago field trip to the museum, it is no easy task to become more mindful of the prejudices and fears of our home communities.  But if we are to teach beyond the basics, we must begin with confronting and working with those fears– for the health and well-being of all of our communities,  for our students, and for ourselves.

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