I needed to stop judging kids until I had a good idea of who they were, where they came from, and where they intended to go. I had to learn their story.
I was privileged to serve as a teacher for 25 years of my life, and in that time, I estimate that I’ve taught roughly 3,000 students. Divided in half, 1,500 of those were boys. Divide that number in half, and 750 of those boys were Black.
Of those 750 boys, a small fraction of them were troublemakers, which was about the same as the small fraction of the white boys who were a pain in the ass.
(Girls, overall, were the biggest pain in the ass regardless of color, but let’s get back to the boys.)
I remember one young man in particular—an eighth grader named DeAndre. Not too far into the beginning of the school year, I had already sized him up. He looked like trouble. Real badass kind of trouble. He appeared to be guarded, secretive, shifty-eyed, and somewhat withdrawn, and I had the feeling that given the right circumstances, he would snap and bad things would happen.
I kept my eye on DeAndre.
During a meeting with the other teachers on my team (this was during the glory days of middle level education where young adolescents were placed on teams with five to six teachers on a team—great for kids; hell on school budgets), I mentioned DeAndre. “He looks like trouble. Anybody else see that?”
One of my colleagues, a whiter than white guy from Anderson, Indiana looked at me strangely and said, “As a matter of fact, I had a really meaningful conversation with him just today. I suggest you do the same when you have time. The kid’s deep, and there’s a spark in those eyes that shows there’s a lot going on with him. Good things.”
The next opportunity I had to start a conversation with DeAndre, I did, and Whitey—my whiter than white colleague who, curiously enough, was himself was often judged by his demeanor, his aloofness, and the color of his whiter than white skin—was right. The kid was deep. And funny. And smart. And often misunderstood.
I ended up loving that kid to pieces. He never failed to surprise me, always made me laugh, and I wonder what he’s doing today. Hopefully great things.
From then on, I learned, thanks to Whitey, that I needed to stop judging kids—regardless of color—until I had a good idea of who they were, where they came from, and where they intended to go. I had to learn their story.
Give people the benefit of the doubt. Assume the good in people until you learn differently. In the case of those who serve and protect, I truly believe that most of them are good people and that most of them do give those with whom they interact the benefit of the doubt until they’re given a reason not to.
Moreover, I would hope that their training teaches them to remain guarded at all times and in every situation regardless of whether they’re confronting an 82 year-old white woman with a walker or a six foot, 250 pound shifty-eyed Black man with a gold tooth and a sneer.
Because you never know: that might just be my DeAndre.