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  • Jan Flynn

What I Wish I Could’ve Said

To the Black mom protecting her son

I understand why you fear for your teen son

I’m a mother of sons too, and while mine are grown men now, I vividly recall the stomach-dropping anxiety of their adolescent years. But I’m white. Whatever fears that kept me wide-eyed at night waiting for them to come home were, I’m sure, only a peek at the dread you must carry with having a Black son in America. That’s true even in our lovely, mostly progressive small town — a place you and your family relocated to, hoping to find an environment less polluted by racism than your previous home in the Southeast.

But no place is immune, as I know I don’t need to tell you. When it comes to diversity, our town comes up short, a fact clearly evident in our school district where the population is nearly 50% white, nearly 50% Latinx, with a smattering of Black, Asian, and South Asian families. Not exactly a rainbow coalition. Most people here are well-intentioned — Black Lives Matter signs appear on windows here and there in the shops downtown and neighborhood houses. Still, being a rural, wine-country enclave, we’re untested.

If I were you, I would probably have reacted the same way you did

When your eighth-grader discovered that another kid, or kids, stuck three bananas in his backpack as a joke, you were certain it was racist harassment, a hate prank. Your husband, a white man, told me about the incident the next day, shaking with rage and hurt as he spoke. He said he knows of at least three families in this school who think this is okay, who have taught their kids that bigotry is acceptable, even to be celebrated.

Your son, he said, was unconcerned. He thought it was just a joke, harmless. But you and your husband knew better.

It was hard, I said, to see this as anything other than an act of racism. We’ve seen it before; the toxins percolate to the surface, seeping in from the internet and social media if not from our immediate surroundings. And it is true that I have known several students over the years who clearly were exuding poisonous attitudes absorbed at home.

We don’t tolerate it. We take a firm stand, but we also use it as a teaching opportunity. Often, tween kids pop off with words or actions whose force they sense but whose destructive nature they don’t comprehend. A lot of the pain of the early adolescent years derives from ill-conceived experiments in social currency and personal power. But that doesn’t make it in the least acceptable.

You and your husband didn’t want to hear any of that from me

To you, it sounded as though I was minimizing the incident. Placating, patronizing, brushing you off. That was the opposite of my intention, but I failed to convey that to you. I connected you and your husband with the principal, who was likewise deeply concerned. But she (and I) had a full day of district meetings scheduled, so a conference was set for the following day.

Meanwhile, the school counselor spent the entire day investigating the incident. She has decades of experience in parsing out the facts of a conflict between kids. It takes a lot of skill to get to the truth as fairly and objectively as possible, without turning kids into social pariahs or having them close ranks and shut down completely. The task is further complicated when our in-person instructional time is shortened by COVID.

Just before school got out, the counselor found the culprit. He didn’t really see what the big deal was, but he gave a full confession. The school lunch had included bananas that day, and the boys were playing with them instead of eating them (welcome to seventh grade). He wound up with three of them. The bell rang to return to class, and he thought it would be funny to stick the bananas in someone else’s backpack.

Your son’s backpack was the one he found open.

The counselor, using words this kid could understand, explained why it was a problem and how it could be perceived as racist. The kid was shocked (“But my cousins are Black!”). The counselor arranged a quick meeting between your son and him. He apologized, the two of them shook hands, and both left smiling.

I wasn’t part of the conference with you and your husband the following day

It wasn’t my role to be there; the principal and the counselor, both white women, met with you and your husband. The meeting went on for an hour and a half.

I didn’t see you and your husband when you left, but I found the counselor in her office, in tears. The principal, who came to our school several years ago from a tough-as-nails school in another county, was in her office with the door closed, having her own mini-meltdown.

So my impression of the encounter is second-hand. What I heard was that you and your husband were convinced that the school was making light of a racist attack on your son (who, you said, refused to talk to you about it) and that there was nothing my colleagues could say that could persuade you otherwise or soften your position. Your husband advocated for suspension, better yet expulsion, of the offending student.

Nothing they told you about the school’s concern for its social-emotional climate — and the fact that some of those programs have had to be curtailed or truncated in this pandemic year, where we’re one of 7% of districts in the state that have had in-person instruction since early November — had any effect. It only seemed to confirm your suspicion that you weren’t being heard, but merely handled.

In the end, you left, possibly angrier than when you’d arrived. The two of you expressed your dissatisfaction and said you’d consider your options for further action: going to the district superintendent, the city council, quite possibly filing a police report.

You have a right to do any or all of those things.

But here is what we couldn’t tell you

And I could have lost my job if I did. We can’t share with you any personal facts about the banana-wielding kid. The school year is over, and I’ve left my position. But I’m betting that you’re interested in true justice, and not just for your own boy.

If you do go to the police, they’ll take your report and, this being the town it is, the police will follow up on it. Unless your son is talking to you now about the incident, this is when you’ll find out that the assumptions you’re making about the other kid are far off the mark.

He is not from one of the families you have in mind. He’s not from a clan of entitled white folk with thinly veiled racist views. He is not a popular, socially powerful bully who has selected your son as a victim. He’s Latinx. He’s in special ed. His parents don’t speak English. They don’t have anything like the education and resources you and your husband do.

He’s got some emotional issues, and he had a rough time adjusting in sixth grade. But with a terrific case manager, school-provided counseling and occupational therapy, and all of us working with him, he’s made tremendous progress. Last year he came to us angry and bewildered. This year he’s mostly happy, able to show his cheerful goofiness, while clearly in need of further guidance. And yes, he does have Black cousins, but he certainly needs more coaching in anti-racism. Most of us do.

He has no idea of the anguish he’s caused you. It wouldn’t occur to him that you may go to the police. His parents will be ill-prepared to respond.

Like your son, he’s at an exquisitely vulnerable place in life.

I know I’m not the person you want to hear this from, but I wish I could tell you. I want your son to be safe and to feel comfortable at his school and in his community. And you’re not wrong to be concerned. But in this particular situation, healing may come from a different place. It’s not the other kid who needs to be straightened out; it’s the culture that makes you, rightly, fear for your son.

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