A White Providence Public School Teacher Writing in Tears

“I am in blood stepped so far, that should I wade no more returning were as tedious as go o’er.” – MacBeth

As a white school teacher in a high-poverty school district whose student body is primarily Black, Asian, Latin American, and other People of Color, I find myself existing in a strange Purgatory, a liminal space. White culture and masculinity have a set of “implicit biases” against expressions of rage and grief when we see another headline about police murdering someone that looks like students that we had in front of us just last year, week, or period.

I don’t doubt that a few of my colleagues have some rather retrograde opinions. I know that some of my coworkers voted for Trump. But on a very simple gut level, none of us want to see our kids end up getting killed over an iced tea and Skittles.

When I saw the news about the Chicago Police murder of Adam Toledo, I sat in my car and burst into tears. As I have watched the news coverage of Duante Wright’s mother speaking to the press, a woman who looks like the majority of the membership of the Providence Teachers Union, I cannot help but imagine how they would feel about a cop shooting their kid. Ma’Khia Bryant resembles so many girls that I have joked around with in class over the years about the most shallow of topics in the catty banter that helps build student-teacher relationships, from television to music to mall shopping.

They are not just students, some alienated commodity resulting from our labor power during the working day. These are our kids. The state designates school teachers as in loco parentis, legally responsible for a child in our care in the same way as a parent during the rest of the day. Every time I see a female coworker call a student “honey,” every time I see the coach that is calmly mentoring a pubescent boy about how to manage his feelings about girls, that’s a parental instinct in a relationship.

I understand why Black and brown parents are itching to get their kids into charter schools and why they are pretty much done with the Teachers Union. Rhode Island has one of the lowest public school enrollment rates in America because of the huge number of parochial schools and my parents sent me to one of them precisely because of their distrust of public education.

But it’s also impossible to deny how hurtful and insulting it feels to be told that all our passion, investment, and empathy just doesn’t count. Do they know the amount of time that I worked off the clock, unpaid and with no chance of a rebate or even an opportunity to be hired for a full-time position, to correct papers and plan lessons? I have been placed multiple times into full-time positions that the district never filled. I was paid $100 a day and no benefits to do a salaried position. I had several health crises during those years and never missed a day of work, even though I should have taken a few weeks off. Don’t tell me that I don’t care about these students and their well-being. Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters wasn’t here that year, what the hell would he know about my work ethic?

The problem is that, after all these Black and brown lives snuffed out by the police, there are no words. It is tedious because we as a society are stepped so far in this carnage. The only thing that I can put into my inkwell are my tears.

Shakespeare wrote about child murderers with state power in his Scottish play. The perpetrators have been dabbling in the Satanic arts, trading their souls for privilege and prestige with hubris. The Witches are small characters, more insignificant than the Ghost in Hamlet. This is because the Bard knew that people are very capable of such vile deeds, that putting too much emphasis upon the supernatural would be letting the monsters off the hook. If someone were to stage the play without any appearance from the Witches, that would make no difference. The trio are not required for MacBeth and his morbid Queen to succeed at their deeds or in their characterization.

And that is exactly the judgment to place upon these child murdering cops. They are not bad because of personal features, whether it be a psychological abberation or personal racist beliefs. It is because policing is evil, as evil as the state power MacBeth holds, and therefore we must abolish policing.

For years, Black and brown community groups in Providence have been fighting to get police removed from schools with their Counselors Not Cops campaign. At one point, Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, under the leadership of the great Black unionist and organizer Mike Araujo, was involved. It is time for the Providence Teachers Union to endorse that campaign and fight for a stronger school system that supports our students. We don’t need to either directly or indirectly be contributing to more police murders by having cops in our schools. If you go to Rhode Island College, the longtime teacher training school, the campus police force is not armed. Violent crime and sexual assault rates are far higher at RIC than at any Providence school. What exactly are we saying when we trust children less than college students? What does it mean for us to give more discretion to people like Brock Turner than children like Adam Toledo? I am not an idiot and I am not naive, in the past five years there were instances when individual students assaulted me, a common occurrence in a student body that was suffering through a pandemic of undiagnosed/undertreated mental illness long before COVID-19 hit. (Our pediatric healthcare system is institutionally-nativist and getting undocumented children living in poverty merely an ADHD diagnosis is nearly impossible.)

But we are in an emergency here as a union and need to take drastic steps for drastic circumstances. Adam Castillo was marginalized in multiple ways prior to his murder, including misplacement in a school system that designated him Special Needs. This Superintendent, despite his proclaimed aspirations towards equity, seeks to replicate those marginalizing trends within our school system by expanding charter school enrollment. There is a convergence between labor and students here that we should not pass up due to our own shortsightedness.

The great Black scholar WEB Du Bois wrote about the struggle of his people in terms of souls. If we Providence teachers continue to be passive in the face of the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, and systemic poverty imposed upon our students, we risk the destruction of our own souls. This kind of social movement activism, different from the white collar business unionism we are used to, is essential for our salvation as both a labor force and human beings.