My students rarely show an interest in current events. Two years ago I tried to engage them with articles about Sonia Sotomayor, assuming that because she was Hispanic, from the Bronx and grew up in poverty, they would feel some connection to her. I was wrong.
“Miss -- why you think we care about this?! We ain’t poor like that. I don’t live in no projects.”
“I’m not Hispanic, I’m Dominican,” another asserted confidently.
“What -- you think just 'cause this lady is from the Bronx we should care? She’s not like us!”
“Lots of more important people than that are from the Bronx,” they said, rattling off the long list of celebrities and musicians who are from their neighborhood.
Since that date, I have been disappointed time and again in my efforts to engage them through current events. It seemed to me that middle schoolers just don’t seem able to connect to a world so far away from their own.
So I was surprised to hear them buzzing about Trayvon Martin. I had planned to bring it up to them, but hadn’t figured that they would already know about it.
I gave them two articles -- one, a timeline of events, and another, an opinion piece written by a teenager in the Huffington Post. Their assignment was to read the articles, and create their own opinion piece, supporting their points with evidence from the timeline.
They got right to work, quiet and focused, only pausing to discuss the issue with their peers. This was an issue with which they clearly connected.
My students are Hispanic and African-American. Half of them have dark skin, half of them have light skin. Some were all too familiar with Trayvon's world.
“I have been stopped by police for questioning many times," one girl wrote. "Why didn’t he get questioned?” She wasn’t questioning the fact of the profiling that must have occurred that led to Trayvon being stopped, because it is a part of her daily reality. But her sense of justice involved a due process that was skipped in this situation.
Another student wrote about what he imagined Trayvon was feeling, pursued by a white man. “Why wouldn’t you run, if someone is following you?” he wrote.
Others wrote about the hoodie, the racial issue, and the fact that there had been no arrest. These are the most common topics on the radio and the news, so I wasn’t surprised to hear them echoed in their essays. But I was surprised that none of those things was the one that made them the most upset.
The most common thread in my students’ papers was that they all mourned the loss of his potential -- his future.
“This 17 year old boy played football. He could have been a professional football player. Now those dreams are dead,” one girl wrote.
Another talked about the family he would never have -- kids, a wife.
My students connected to this boy because of the unfairness of what happened, the racial profiling that is a reality of their lives, and the fact that this could as easily have been their own experience. But more than that, they connected to the loss of all of the things about which they dream, and saw their fears of an uncertain future reflected off of him.
My students, like many middle-school pupils, rarely get excited about their own goals or prospects. Perhaps it is hard to dream of big things when you lack enough models of greatness. Or maybe it’s just hard to imagine yourself as a grown-up when you are still a child. The students in my class seem to have a vague notion of their future but, as is typical for their age, they don't have a strong grip on what it holds.
The Trayvon Martin tragedy, however, allowed them to project very clear aspirations, as seen through the dreams that were lost.
Rather than focus on the injustice of this situation, or feel the anger that so many adults have spoken of, they focused on something that I hadn’t stopped to think about too deeply: This was a peer whose life had been thwarted. The circumstances mattered, but they weren’t the point.
There are a lot of lessons to be taken from the Trayvon Martin case. Many in the news have talked about the discussions they have had with their kids, warning them of profiling and other indignities. Others have lamented the legal system in Florida.
But perhaps the lesson that my students will remember will be related to their own potential, and the importance of valuing the possibilities that life holds for them.
Maybe their big takeaway won’t be about how they dress or how they carry themselves -- but rather about how they dream.