Teacher: Do black stu­dents mat­ter?

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By David DeMatthews David DeMatthews is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Texas at El Paso and a former pub­lic school ed­u­ca­tor in Bal­ti­more and Wash­ing­ton D.C. His email is dede­matthews@utep.edu.

Ask most Bal­ti­more or D.C. teach­ers or prin­ci­pals about their daily work and I bet you will bet­ter un­der­stand the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

I am a white man who was a high school teacher and as­sis­tant prin­ci­pal re­spec­tively in Bal­ti­more City Pub­lic Schools and the District of Columbia Pub­lic Schools. I vividly re­mem­ber the en­vi­ron­ment in my first school and the schools I vis­ited across the city as a bas­ket­ball coach: ro­dents, roaches, leak­ing toi­lets seep­ing into hall­ways, bars over frosted win­dows, rot­ten ceil­ing tiles, miss­ing floor tiles, un­drink­able tap wa­ter, decade-old text­books, and bro­ken and un­se­cured doors.

When we left the city for games at sub­ur­ban high schools, my play­ers asked, “Is this re­ally a school, is this like a col­lege?” I be­gan to think, Do Bal­ti­more schools mat­ter?

I drove play­ers home at night, but I didn’t tell them I was scared on cer­tain streets. I thought, “I’m 22, in a car, and I’m scared of Park Heights, mean­while my stu­dent lives here.” How­much does his life mat­ter in re­la­tion to my own?

In my Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment class in Bal­ti­more, I be­came the stu­dent and lis­tened to sto­ries about the po­lice, il­le­gal searches and “baby book­ings.” I told my men­tor teacher that my sopho­more stu­dents know more about how the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem works than I do. Do my stu­dents’ rights mean as much as my own?

In D.C., many stu­dents came to school hun­gry, dirty, tired and up­set. We washed their clothes, fed them three meals a day and had a mental health team on staff, but we couldn’t get much help from so­cial ser­vice agen­cies. A staff mem­ber once asked me, “Does any­one in the city care about our kids?”

Also in D.C., I re­mem­ber when an eighth-grade stu­dent of mine was mur­dered and telling our mostly white and mid­dle class fac­ulty the bad news. We cried, but our stu­dents coun­seled us be­cause they had been through this be­fore. I re­mem­ber when Boo­gie, one of my bas­ket­ball play­ers, was mur­dered a few years back, and an­other former player say­ing, “Well, you knew it had to be at least one of us.” I thought, “No, I did not know that.” Do my bas­ket­ball play­ers mat­ter?

A D.C. po­lice of­fi­cer helped at our school. Once, we worked to­gether to help a 14-year-old; for over a year and a half we pe­ti­tioned gov­ern­ment of­fices, bought food, did home vis­its, made con­tracts, of­fered up in­cen­tives, and tried to be men­tors. No­body lis­tened as he ran from fos­ter homes, group homes and ju­ve­nile de­ten­tion cen­ters. Do kids in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem mat­ter?

I wit­nessed other po­lice pep­per spray and club stu­dents, call them the N-word or bas­tards, and man­han­dle them for pic­tures of tat­toos. One day I sat down at a bar in Bal­ti­more and a po­lice of­fi­cer next to me struck up a con­ver­sa­tion. When I told him I was a teacher in Bal­ti­more, he bought me a beer, took his gun out of his hol­ster, and said to me while hold­ing his gun, “Your job’s tougher than mine be­cause you have to go in there with those an­i­mals with­out this, you need this more than I do.”

Many Bal­ti­more and D.C. teach­ers want jus­tice for their stu­dents and sup­port Black Lives Mat­ter be­cause they want a more just so­ci­ety. Black Lives Mat­ter is not just about polic­ing and the war on drugs in the black com­mu­nity, but about the de­hu­man­iza­tion of black peo­ple. Black Lives Mat­ter is about ba­sic hu­man rights, which in­cludes the right to a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, safe hous­ing and ad­e­quate health care,

When I think about Boo­gie and Isa­iah and my other former stu­dents who are dead, in­car­cer­ated or trapped in poverty, I know black lives do not yet mat­ter as much as other lives. I still go to sleep pray­ing to God that my former stu­dents are safe.

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