Classroom Perspectives, Featured, Social Justice

Talking to Young Students About George Floyd

Talking to Young Students About George Floyd

Originally published July 2020

By Nicole Mitchell

Most mornings, I wake up early. I do this so I have time to care for myself before I care for my students. I do yoga, journal, water my garden, drink coffee in bed while I read inspiring things that are not about teaching elementary school. I let myself feel successful and nourished. Then I log onto Zoom, content and ready to be my best teacher self.

But today is Friday, May 29. Earlier this week, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis, the latest in a string of recorded police brutality against Black people. Protests are erupting across the world. I text friends in the Twin Cities and ask them if they are safe. I get snared watching Instagram stories, feeling fear, grief, and anger rise. I fight these feelings, because soon it will be time to get on Zoom. I do not know how to do my job and feel these things simultaneously.

Now it is 8:30 a.m., and my personal time is up. I put my feelings in a box and close the lid. I turn on my computer and lead my second graders in a social-emotional circle. They share: I feel happy. I feel happy. I feel calm. And then, I feel scared. I am scared because the police killed a Black man and I don’t know why and there are people lighting buildings on fire. I am scared we are going back to segregation.

This unleashes a torrent of fear. My students are scared of COVID, “murder hornets,” the police, and now protests. Ellie remembers that once she went to a haunted house and that felt scary too. I lead us in a breath and assure my students that their grownups will keep them safe. Then time is up. I unmute the class so they can say goodbye and watch their faces disappear from the screen.

With my heart in my throat and continuing feelings of grief, anger, and fear, I compartmentalize the morning. Before my next Zoom lesson, I spend time on Google. “How to talk to kids about police violence.” “Talking to children about racialized violence.” “Explain police brutality to early elementary students.” I keep clicking on resource lists that bring me to the same Teaching Tolerance article, or finding things that aren’t appropriate for eight-year-olds. Forty minutes is not enough time to do this right. I put my feelings back in their box, stuff a wave of insufficiency on top, and move on to teaching about synonyms.

In the afternoon, I send an email with a few resources to the parents of the students who were most stirred up. I also email the counselor and behavior specialist to ask if they have any guidance. I wonder what I should do on Monday. There is a part of me that thinks it is inappropriate to talk to other people’s kids about race. There is a part of me that worries a parent might get mad, and then I will be in trouble. I worry that I may be bulldozing forwards with my own bias, and that talking to my kids about police brutality will harm them in some way. I don’t want to be the teacher equivalent of the folks who seem to splash Black death and pain across social media. Also, I’m selfishly scared. We live in a racist society, and even though I am well-meaning and working on being actively anti-racist, I know I will say and do things that are racist. What if I mess up and say something racist in front of my students? I know experts say children are never too young to talk about race, but none of them have a lesson plan for me.

Then comes guilt. My fears are so inconsequential compared to the experiences of Black people in my country. How can I not be braver?

Obviously, my students are aware of what is happening and it is impacting them. I did not become a teacher because I love reading; I became a teacher because I wanted to do something that would make the world more just. I think of all the microaggressions that were part of my education as a mixed-race, white and Asian child in the Midwest. I think of every moment a teacher or professor did not speak up for me, and how each of those moments became a wound. I know I had it easy compared to other people of color with less proximity to “whiteness.” I think of what it will mean to my Black students if I choose to say nothing in the face of their pain, in the face of this momentous tragedy.

On Sunday I am in one of the estimated five thousand cars that drive through Oakland, CA demanding justice. On Monday I drive my friend to the march led by Oakland Technical High School students, then pick her up, while a few blocks away, the Oakland Police Department tear-gases protestors. By her account, all were peaceful, though local news outlets report that some protestors were violent.

On Tuesday, I sit next to my sister on an organizing call and listen to members of the queer Asian Pacific Islander movement speak. The elders of the group share that they are mad and sad but also hopeful. I am shocked that they expressed hope. It does not feel allowed, in the face of tragedy. But these elders lived through AIDS, and through that crisis they created the incredible community that persists today. They speak and show me how to see through my fear to possibility.

So now it is Wednesday. I have emailed parents and let them know that today we will be talking about George Floyd and the protests. Everything I felt on Friday, I still feel, with fresh anxiety on top. Tonight, folks I love, will be on the frontlines, gathered downtown in defiance of curfew. They are protesting for the youth who were gassed before curfew. I am so scared for my people. I need to write progress reports and figure out if digital resource subscriptions will extend through the summer. Instead, I am looking for any information about Oakland bail funds, for verified information about dealing with tear gas. I am wrung out by the urgency of everything that calls for my attention.

I breathe. I do not put my fear, my grief, my anger away. I hold them in my palm, probe their edges, ask myself where does this live in my body? What shape does it have? I practice the things my therapist taught me. Instead of sinking into guilt or thinking about what it would mean not to teach this lesson, I think of what it will mean to teach it. A parent emailed me and called me courageous. She said she felt blessed I was her daughter’s teacher. I imagine a future where she doesn’t feel I’m a blessing because teachers talking about race and equity are a given. I think of what it could mean for my Black students in the present to know their teacher is trying, to know that their school cares about them and their Blackness, to hear that their non-Black friends are hurting in ways that echo their own hurt. I log onto Zoom, let one of my students lead us in breath, and then we begin.

At first I cannot hear the words I am saying over the blood pounding in my ears, but I tune into my kids and settle into my teacher self. “Friends,” I say, “what do you know about George Floyd? What do you know about the protests that are happening right now? What questions do you have?”

Immediately hands pop up on my screen. Andrew shares that he attended a protest this weekend. “We didn’t stay that long, because my mom said it got a little bit violent. I saw people chanting George Floyd, and I felt sad that we still have to do this. This is like the same thing that made slavery happen.”

Andrew has been talking to me and his friends about race all year. His mom is white and his dad is Black and he is figuring out what that means at a school where most of his peers are Asian. In October, he wrote to his pen pal: “I am African American, are you?” I didn’t make this child wise, but I realize that if I didn’t teach this lesson, none of us would get the gift of his knowledge.

Eloise thinks that people should not loot: “breaking windows and stealing stuff just makes the bad worse.” Megan responds: “I don’t think it’s good or bad, I think people are so angry about Black people getting killed for no reason that they have to do something.”

They are saying, “I agree” and “I disagree” and “because…” and having a more nuanced discussion than I could have dreamed. My students started the year with strong critical thinking skills. I cannot take full credit for that. Yet I know that holding space for them today is giving them the opportunity to turn these skills towards building an understanding of justice. They were ready to rise, they just needed an occasion.

I close class with a final breath. Inhale, one, two, three, four. Exhale, four, three, two, one. I end the Zoom call, then reach for the feelings I held at the start of class. Fear is still there, and grief, and anger. Hope is there too.

Nicole Mitchell is a queer, mixed-race Asian and white woman. She just completed her second year in the classroom. She teaches 2nd grade at a Mandarin immersion school in the San Francisco Bay area.