To the Tremendous Energy at the Start of an Unprecedented School Year
Growing up, I attended a small Catholic grade school in East Camden. We were a small community, but a community nonetheless. At the start of every school year, I could depend on seeing the same familiar faces; whether I cared for some of those faces or not is another story. But I digress.
Two things made our school uniquely different in my adolescent view. First, we were taught Catholicism; it was core content. However, it made for interesting conversations with the elders of my Black Baptist Church-going family. Second was that white kids didn’t attend our school; our school was an amalgam of Latinx and Black kids with mostly, if not only, white teachers and administrators.
It wasn’t the same for high school.
I attended a Catholic high school and while I was sadly accustom to learning from all white teachers, it was the first time that I would share classroom space with white kids. Although I had all white teachers in grade school, our student body gave me a level of comfort; we and our families were the community. We were on our turf.
But the first day of high school marked my arrival on foreign soil.
I was no longer in the city; I was now attending school in the suburbs. It was a different world. That first day, I sat in an auditorium filled with white kids. Every Black face became a familiar face. My trepidation wasn’t because I thought I would experience racism explicitly, although it was a concern.
My trepidation was from departing a space where my experiences and history was central to the fabric of the school for a space where those things were not. The school was overwhelmingly white, the school’s history was overwhelmingly white and the thought of how those truths would interact with my curricular and extracurricular experiences was jarring, taxing and exhausting.
I can only imagine that starting a new school year under the circumstances of a global pandemic that our nation has failed to get a handle on is equally jarring, taxing and exhausting.
You may or may not know what to expect. You may or may not know what future the school year holds for you. Those life-changing moments in the classroom, field trips, dances, and athletic competitions may not happen during a time of social distancing. The academic experience on Zoom or Google Classroom may become redundant faster than if had in-person.
Also, there’s the real world and what that means for your world.
Talking heads on television and social media mention the impact of the Coronavirus; arguing either in favor of or against government enforcing social measures. However, you or someone you know may have experienced the effects of the Coronavirus physically, economically or both and that story is failing to be told.
While the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Elijah McClain may have reawakened America to its own anti-Blackness displayed in the form of police brutality and corporations in addition to policymakers pledged that Black lives mattered, Jacob Blake, Deon Kay, Daniel Prude and Dijon Kizzee happened.
These challenges lead up to a presidential election; deciding whether we will face our challenges as a nation or keep avoiding the reality of their existence. Math, science, social studies and English may not seem of the greatest importance in this moment. I get it.
But overcoming these challenges is a goal of our collective communities and we need you to achieve our collective liberation. You aren’t simply our future; you are our heartbeat in the present. You are the engine that is the power of a movement in our fight for liberation.
The youth are always at the heart of liberation movements. For example, During the Civil Rights Movement, young people led the Freedom Rides, voter registrations and sit-ins whereby their lives were on the line. Muhammad Ali was 24 when he stood on his principles to not fight in the Vietnam War. Teenagers routinely signed up as Black Panther Party members in the ’60s and ’70s. NBA players at or around the same age are speaking out against police brutality while finishing their season.
These and other activists have a few things in common. First, they share a courage to speak truth to power. Second, they share a willingness to speak truth to power at the risk of physical, financial or other harms levied upon them. Lastly, they shared an ability to activate their knowledge to speak truth to power.
Having courage is important and so is having a willingness to be selfless. But just as important is your ability to activate knowledge; acquire the knowledge and activate it on behalf of your communities.
This school year marks the beginning of your opportunity to do just that even more.
Protest marches and boycotts are important and are great to be a part of. However, social distancing and school attendance will hinder your participation. Nevertheless, you have a voice that you can share on behalf of yourself and your community. You can write your local representative, write to your local newspaper, participate in forums where you can share your experiences and volunteer with an organization that aligns with your goals.
But you can do none of that with the knowledge and insight gained from your studies. It may seem trivial, however every lesson can go a long way with supporting your activism. A fourth-grader wouldn’t know where to address a letter to her state’s governor without having learned the capital of her state, how to spell and how to write a letter.
An eighth-grader may not be inspired to create a garden of fruits and vegetables in her community without learning in science class about the harmful chemicals injected in foods to preserve their shelf-life. A high school senior may choose not to speak at a city council meeting to protest an unjust ordinance if he had not learned public speaking and debating.
Your education matters.
James Baldwin, the famous American writer, said that Black children represented a tremendous potential and tremendous energy that would help America find its way. You are the tremendous energy that Baldwin referenced. You will help America find its way. That starts on your very first day.
You may experience some anxiety, but know that, through you, this year will birth the change our nation and our world will need.
This year will be your most successful.