I’m currently in the midst of a two-week substitute teaching job in an English Literature class, talking to high school juniors and seniors about the finer points of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” respectively. And before the teacher took his temporary leave, he had also handed out a packet on poetry to the juniors to discuss as part of National Poetry Month, though I found out the first day on the gig that this packet was going to be saved until he got back, alleviating me of the duty of talking poetry with the kids.
Which is a bummer! So that meant that these students were likely going to go through the bulk of NPM without so much as glancing at a poem – which is unacceptable as far as I’m concerned. So in order to keep on track with the assigned reading and to fulfill what I felt was a moral obligation as a teacher of literature, I’ve started each class by sharing a new poem of the day. And it’s gone pretty well! The juniors haven’t seemed overly interested, though there are certainly exceptions to that rule. But the seniors, on the other hand, have been much more receptive. This might have something to do with the fact that this is an International Baccalaureate (IB) senior English Literature class that the students had to test into, but regardless, we’ve had some interesting discussions.
After sharing established pieces by Billy Collins, Gwendolyn Brooks, and William Carlos Williams, I did something a little bit different yesterday by sharing a poem by Reginald Dwayne Betts that was just published in this month’s Poetry magazine. This is about as contemporary of poetry one is going to find in a literature class, and since the poem was also featured on the magazine’s podcast, the classes even got to hear the author himself read the poem. The title of the piece – “When I think of Tamir Rice While Driving.”
The poem recounts the feelings of the speaker, the author himself, as he thinks of the unfortunate fate of the 12-year old Tamir Rice, who was shot dead by police in a public park in Cleveland, Ohio, for being a black kid with a toy gun. Betts recalls this as he sees his own sons in the backseat, and his fears that their own blackness could lead them to a similar fate. The boys have, “heard / me warn them against playing with toy pistols, / though my rhetoric is always about what I don’t / like, not what I fear, because sometimes / I think of Tamir Rice & shed tears” he explains at the start of the poem. By the end, we’re treated to a beautifully phrased gray area where hope and heartache intermingle, when he says, “there is a part of me that wishes that it would go away, / the memories, & that I could abandon all talk of making it right / & justice. But my mind is no sieve & sanity is no elixir & I am bound / to be haunted by the strength that lets Tamir’s father, / mother, kinfolk resist the temptation to turn everything / they see into a grave…”
To my surprise, in each class, at best,
only a couple students had even heard
of this young boy, his sad end, and
the social outcry that was the result.
I played the recording of the poem to the first class, and realized that I asked a little too late how many of them knew who Tamir Rice was. Only one hand went up. So I explained the situation, and for each class thereafter, I made sure to ask before I played the poem. To my surprise, in each class, at best, only a couple students had even heard of this young boy, his sad end, and the social outcry that was the result. But it occurred to me, after talking to a few classes, that this should not be any surprise. The greatest slight against victims like Tamir isn’t necessarily that their killers have been allowed to walk away free; it’s that there’s never been a true demand from the people of this country to find justice for the least privileged amongst us, for the poorest and most marginalized, for the faces that we most associate with crime and therefore “deserve” their fate.
So in the afternoon IB English class, while we discussed the poem and the situation that inspired it, one of the students brought up a point. Much of the class was quiet after I had asked if anyone had any thoughts on this poem, so I was excited to hear what he had to contribute. He said he had Googled Tamir while I spoke about poem, and based off of what he had just read, it looked as though there was guilt on both sides – namely that Tamir’s toy gun didn’t have its required orange cap at the end of the barrel, in addition to the officers firing too quickly. Whereas one could use this as an example of objectivity in journalism (no doubt the Cleveland police department harped on the lack of orange barrel cap until they were blue in the face), such a comment comes from a dark place in our culture’s growing pains. I asked the class whether they thought Tamir’s final episode would’ve happened the same way if he were instead a 12-year old blonde white girl. A few voices didn’t hesitate for a second to say no, they did not. And if it were to have happened, did they think that there would’ve been the same public justifications made, that the officer had to make a split second decision and that it was a sad but inevitable incident? No. Many of them didn’t think that either. Though I can’t say specifically whether or not the young man who said it looked like there was guilt to go around concurred or not with my hypotheticals, I would never presume that his statement came from a place of personal racial prejudice. But it’s definitely telling of a greater systemic problem that we have with race relations; we have a difficult time imagining young blonde girls getting gunned down in the street by police officers, but we have a hard time fully blaming the officers for what happened when it’s a young black boy.
Our learning curve for the experience
of minorities has a long arch, and the
young man in class yesterday is likely
just at the beginning of his.
Our learning curve for the experience of minorities has a long arch, and the young man in class yesterday is likely just at the beginning of his. He’s an intelligent kid, so I’m hopeful that he and others in the class will think for awhile about our discussion. They need not come to any conclusions right away, but if they keep points of view like that of Reginald Dwayne Bett in mind as they make their way in the world after graduation, I’ll be much more confident that they’ll end up being pavers of the road of social equity than they will be the demolition crew.
By the end of the day, there was a certain depressing aspect to these classes, namely how few students even knew the name Tamir Rice. I’ve heard it said before that we all die two deaths – when we draw our last breath and when our name is uttered for the last time. This was a point I made when discussing the last chapter of “The Things They Carried” with the IB English class, but if I were thinking about it at the time, it’s a point that fits only too well for forever-young Tamir as well. And likewise, being a true war story in its own right, perhaps there’s no moral to his story as well. Maybe all we can do is remember Tamir and his sad ending one more day, and be haunted by the strength of those who work toward justice.