White teachers scare the hell out of me – or did anyway. Several made life difficult for me, and some did thinking they were doing genuinely good work. Mr. Hagen was my 6th grade teacher, and he was one of those people. He was a tall man with a booming loud voice and a disarming laugh. When he was in the room you knew it. He was always joking with students and having fun creatively teaching them how to learn lessons. He was all energy. I really liked him. But the day he put his hands on me, all that changed.
I can’t remember what triggered the incident. Was I talking too loud, or was I talking during a movie, or was I just horsing around with a classmate? I don’t know, because all I can remember are two emotions: his rage and my naked terror of it. He was screaming at the top of his lungs about what I was doing wrong like I couldn’t change it. He pulled me into the hall like a bag of trash bound for a dumpster, and I could feel the anger in his hands as he slammed me against the wall. I was pinned, berated and made to feel worthless. These are feelings that linger and take years to figure out.
What does it mean to have an adult that’s “trusted” render life-altering judgments and lay hands on you? But in that moment he didn’t see that he was white and I was a scared black kid; it missed his notice that a terrible event was being burned into a young brain. I was being taught not to trust people that looked like him. And to fear not just whites but institutions as well, even ones like public education, which supposedly work for the greater good of everyone.
I don’t know what was in Mr. Hagen’s heart, but the net effect of terrorizing a child was debilitation. I stopped wanting to learn. The trip to school from that day forward was long, and I didn’t live far from my school. My time in class was uncomfortable and boring as I tuned out my teachers’ voices. I drifted farther from my potential and closer to statistics that lead too many young black men to early graves. I became destructive and was frequently in trouble with the law. Eventually I saw no pathway for me in school – and definitely none to college – so I dropped out and tuned out.
Why would we expect black children to learn under conditions like that? Why would it be acceptable to us to condemn even one to the feeling of not belonging? Is our desire for social justice so all-consuming it fails to see the obvious or create any semblance of the world it imagines? Children are supposed to be protected, and I wasn’t protected. As a society, we should be going to extraordinary lengths to protect our black children if we suspect they are being harmed, even if the harm is inadvertent.