When I walked into the government classroom at Thurgood Marshall Academy before last week’s election, I immediately noticed the teacher’s T-shirt: “Democracy is a verb.”
The topic for the day was “standards.” Students had to explain our nation’s fundamental morals and values, analyzing the fourth Amendment’s protections and relevant court opinions. It’s the “your home is your castle” amendment, the one protecting us from unreasonable searches and seizures.
I was there as an adult guest judge for the seniors competing in the Mikva Challenge, in which students give two-minute “soapbox speeches” about issues they care about. Then peers and adult guest judges, like me, offer feedback on what was compelling and what needed strengthening.
A bit of background on the school itself: Almost 100 percent are African-American, and about 75 percent qualify for federal free or reduced lunch, what their website calls “the education marker of poverty.” I heard 13 speeches from students that day, and nine were about Black Lives Matter. The central question they posed, voice after voice, was “Do they really?”
Some focused on police brutality. “We are being killed because of the color of our skin, where we live, and what we wear.” But just as many were about black-on-black crime. “The police may be killing us, but we’re killing us, too.”
Gun violence is everywhere. Their parents tell them, “Back in the day, we fought with our hands. You could survive that.” One after another, they shared their losses—an uncle sitting in the barber chair, a beloved older brother —“not a saint”— lured out of the house then executed in his front yard, drive-by’s so frequent and close up that it is simply not safe to stand on the street talking with friends on a sunny day. “You cannot do it.” “It’s not safe.” There is no castle.
A young mother-to-be wondered if bringing a black child into this world right now is wise. “Will my child’s father also be incarcerated or killed and absent, just like all the men in my life?”
Street commerce is “doing what you have to do to feed the family,” and sometimes the families’ addictions. The grind of working three minimum wage jobs to provide for the family means that you’re not able to “be there” for them growing up.
“This is not something I want to live with,” they say.
After opening up to each other, every student had to lay out a call to action. They made sound suggestions about policy and practice. But they also had specific, urgent requests for adults:
“You’re listening, but what I need you to do is hear me.”
“I need you to try to understand other people like me.”
“I need you to know that real tough dudes don’t need a gun.”
“I need you to stay in school and make something of your life because you’re beautiful and strong.”
For the last week and a half, our hearts and heads have been filled with reactions to the results of the elections, where inevitably adults are identifying as either winners or losers. Our children and youth have been absorbing it all, and many I know and love are frightened and confused.
We must reassure and protect them, while helping them find their way to be active and empowered participants in this democracy.
Democracy may be a verb, but so is being a caring adult.