By Chloe Smith-Frank and Jessyca D’Oliveira
When talking about current events (From Emma Watson to school shootings), most Middle Schoolers get their facts jumbled. We get our facts wrong because by the time we hear it, the information has probably been passed between people at least twice.
The events in Ferguson, MO., have left many schools baffled about how to teach their students. In Lower School, current events often go undiscussed, as the school simply says “skin color doesn’t matter” and leaves it at that. Once a year we might write letters to Martin Luther King Jr., thanking him for making everything equal.
Events like Ferguson provide an amazing foundation for talking about race in the US, and we realize that most elementary school age children don’t receive much of it. But to allow children to think that the big, bad world actually works like this is setting them up for disappointment.
On August 9, 2014, a white police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed a black 18-year-old named Michael Brown in a suburb of St Louis. Brown was unarmed.
Michael Brown and his friend, Dorian Johnson, were suspects in a convenience store robbery earlier that day. Wilson stopped them in his cruiser and an “altercation” (argument or fight) ensued. No one except Wilson (and the late Brown) knows exactly what happened next, but Michael Brown was shot twelve times and killed. His body was then left in the street for 9 hours in the Southern summer heat.
This happened before school started for the year, but we did not talk about it until December. Obviously the entire school couldn’t possibly have discussions immediately after the year started, but there was no mention of the events in any class, club, or assignment until November. Even by the time we did start talking about it (tentatively, and with teachers careful not to ask for opinions), several Eighth grade students had no idea what had happened.
The school obviously can’t control discussions of current events within households. But it should know that some parents don’t like talking about news with their children, and it should try to keep its students informed.
Once the school had talked about it once, and we do give credit to Upper School dedicating a whole day to this subject, no one wanted to talk about it anymore. Some people can’t relate to the prejudice that are common outside of the fences of GFS. But even if you haven’t experienced any prejudice against you because of your race, you most likely know a friend who has. What we have heard is that people feel uncomfortable talking about race. While we do respect your opinion, prejudice against minorities because of race isn’t exactly comfortable either. The whole experience for people who have gone through it is more than uncomfortable. Minority groups don’t enjoy being pulled over by a police officer because of their race. Nor do they enjoy talking about those experiences. All we are ask is that we as a school acknowledge the fact more than it does.
We say here at GFS that we do believe in diversity and equality. While we do love the fact that most people at GFS will not treat you any differently because of your skin color, we should talk about how people outside of this school will. The lesson of “everyone is the same” goes back to the Quaker principle of equality. But although we believe in it, diversity isn’t exactly what is shown throughout GFS. Most of the kids that go here are more than well-off regarding money, have at least one car, are Christian, and usually Caucasian. How can we say “we are for diversity” when things are obviously not diverse in our school? Very few of us don’t meet all the things listed on the list of things in common. Hence, we are a minority to the majority of the group.
A grand jury decided on November 24 of last year not to indict Wilson, which means that he will not face a criminal trial for the killing. The Prosecuting Attorney, Robert P. McCulloch, claimed that there was insufficient evidence to take Wilson to trial. The Middle School still didn’t discuss the events.
We interviewed Mirangela Buggs, Director of Multicultural Affairs. She said that what really sparked December 12’s teach-in was a meeting of the Upper School Students of Color affinity groups, B.A.S.E. and Sistahs. Heads of Departments were contacted and agreed that a teach-in was a good idea.
We understand that discussions are not nearly as productive if they are forced by teachers. But one teach-in isn’t enough, and if student groups don’t organize another (they haven’t), it’s up to the teachers, who say that they really care about these issues. Most of them undoubtedly do, but most of them also have yet to follow through.
We have heard students asking in frustration, “How long do we have to keep talking about this?” The answer should be, “Until it stops happening.” But so far, GFS’s answer has been, “Until most students stop talking about it.” The fact of the matter is that if no one speaks up, no one is going to know what you want. Most of the events happened in Upper School because, Mirangela told us, they were “student lead.” But what that means is that a number of students got over the topic being uncomfortable and just wanted to talk about it. So why isn’t that happening in Middle School? Is it a matter of age and growing up? Is it a matter of people having more experiences with prejudice outside (and sometimes in) the GFS community? Or is a matter of more people who just want to continually talk about it?
This issue isn’t new. It wasn’t new when Trayvon Martin was shot. It wasn’t new when a African man was tasered in front of his own children for not having his seatbelt on when he was in the passenger seat (a thing one only gets pulled over for if the police are watching your car in the first place.) It wasn’t new when some of our parents were pulled over when they were teenagers. The only difference is that because of today’s technology, people are being able to see the difference from what actually goes on and a police report.
The Upper School did a much better job of discussing these events than the Middle School. We don’t feel that the Lower School can be held to the same standards, since the students are less mature and their parents might not feel ready to discuss these issues with them. But once a student reaches the middle of 6th grade, they should at least be exposed to these issues.
The aforementioned white, Christian students often protest at their not being “allowed” to attend meetings of affinity groups. Mirangela told us that while they might have good intentions, they need to “learn how to be better allies”.
We’re suggesting an affinity group meeting once every two months that is open to anyone who wants to attend and discuss these issues. Hopefully, if enough people are willing to force themselves out of their comfort zones and attend, we can make real, consistent progress on issues like these.
The alternative is to do what has happened so far, which is to have a series of mandatory workshops, a few evening forums (which, face it, most students won’t attend), and calling it a year. Until something egregious happens again. And for a school that values diversity as much as GFS, that’s not an acceptable trajectory.
Photo by Earthquake Photographer David Barr ’16