What to Do About Ferguson

I remember Columbine.

I remember it occurred on a Tuesday.

I remember it occurred on a Tuesday because that was the night my fourth grade class always had to watch the news and bring in a current event.

All that Tuesday evening, as I watched the news, my heart went out to the Columbine students and families. I searched for a way to comprehend for myself and just couldn’t. Then I remembered my students were watching, and I felt even worse. I had unwittingly exposed a group of ten-year-olds to this. This aberration. This massacre.

That Wednesday morning, there was absolutely no doubt what story the students brought in to discuss. We spent nearly two hours talking about the events of the previous day, trying to make sense of things. When it boiled down to it, the students learned:
1. There really is no way to make sense of these things. Even for grown-ups.
2. Events like these make us look at the people in our lives with renewed love and gratitude.
3. Our parents worry about us, want us to be okay, and wish they could always protect us. They can’t.
4. See # 2.

And now.

Last night, my family sat transfixed as we watched Ferguson tear apart. My sons witnessed the burning cars, the people running to escape tear gas, the broken windows, the pleas for peace. They asked many questions, some of which I had the answers to. Others? Well…I only wished.

Being the teacher that I am, I process everything through the lens of student interactions. My mind went through how I would discuss these events with my students. Because in my classroom, we have to. We would have to use this opportunity to open our eyes to the events of history and understand who we are, where we stand, and what we individually must do.

But.

I don’t have my own class.

I’m a specialist who sees kids, depending on their grade, between one and three hours a week. I don’t get to assign current events anymore. We don’t get to have morning meetings. Or community time. These are the times I miss having my own group of students. Kids that I can love and nurture and give what they need all week long, not just for thirty to sixty minutes at a pop.

I began to think that I would have to let this opportunity pass me by. After all, I don’t have much time with my students. Furthermore, and more importantly, who’s to even say that my kids even KNOW what’s going on in Ferguson? Some of them may have parents who talk to them about the news, but I don’t think the majority of them are up on what’s happening around them.

I could wait for our next novel study. It’s a book set in the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s. I would do a tremendous disservice in allowing my children to think that this struggle is a thing of the past, that racial equality arrived hand-in-hand with the March on Washington. That we have overcome. That we now live in a nation where all citizens truly have equal opportunities, and where people of different races live in harmony.

We still suffer the ills of inequality, of racism, of injustice. Ferguson is a symptom.

And then it hit me.

My fifth graders are reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Yes, it’s a novel study, but we’re mostly using it as a springboard for studying bigger stuff: the nature of intelligence, the cosmos, dystopian societies, the Cold War. Big ideas for young minds.

Today is the day I show them the video clip of Carl Sagan’s famous essay, The Pale Blue Dot. 

Bingo.

It’s perfect. In three minutes, it communicates what I wish to get across: people’s needs, their struggles, their desires for power and agency. It seems both so critical and so insignificant all at the same time.

It’s a start.

We may not be able to have a direct discussion about the events in Ferguson today. But we just may. I just may have one student: sensitive, aware, concerned. One student who may beg the question. And when that student does?

I’ll be ready.

Watch Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot for three minutes of reflection, perspective, and, hopefully, inspiration.

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