I started working at NUI Galway five years ago today. I was relieved to accept a three month contract for the summer months, and to try a new role as a learning technologist. I was honoured to work in higher ed, and to work with such esteemed colleagues. I had no doubt that this career shift was temporary, as my imposter syndrome raged.
I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in the five years, and so grateful for the stability and possibilities I’ve been afforded. But today isn’t the day to discuss it…
I began my teaching career in an inner city high school in the United States. As I watch current events unfold there, I find myself thinking about my former students. I was twenty-two years old when I started work, I was only a few years older than some of my students. The two years I spent teaching there shaped my entire career.
I could write a series of posts about the injustices I saw my students face, but for today, I’ll share one story. One morning, I noticed one of my seniors rubbing his wrists. He was a tall, athletic black man. He was a friendly guy, but that morning he looked down. He was a star athlete, so I assumed the injury was sustained during practice. I asked him what happened, and he put his head down, avoiding eye contact. He was shy, so I didn’t want to press him. His more outgoing friend elbowed him and urged him to tell me. After all, I was the nice teacher, and. I wasn’t going to judge.
He pulled up the sleeves of his hoodie to display large, circular bruises on each wrist. He sighed, and softly admitted. that he’d been held by the police the night before. He seemed ashamed. I didn’t care. He was a lovely kid and I had no misconceptions about his character.
And then he explained how ‘things’ worked. The police had been on the lookout for a young black man, six feet tall, wearing a black hoodie. I understood immediately how many young men that the description could apply to. He explained that he was handcuffed behind his back and. made to sit on the kerb while the police ran his information.
As he grew more comfortable talking about it, he explained how painful it is to be handcuffed from behind, and being made to sit on a low street kerb for some time is when you are well over six feet tall. It was, in fact, excruciating.
He hadn’t done anything wrong, he was let go, but he was injured. He was my student, he was hurt, and I didn’t like it. He was held because of what he looked like. It could have jeapordised his athletic career.
This wasn’t the most extreme thing I ever witnessed by any means, but the moment, in its nuances, sticks with me. I learned to approach my students with kindness, as we can’t always know what’s going on for them outside of school. I also learned that a young black man walking home from school isn’t always guaranteed to get home undisturbed. He was lucky…too many young black men don’t make it home.
So, instead of reflecting on five years of work today, I’m reflecting on fifteen. Fifteen years ago those students and I were rallying against racism and injustice, and somehow we’re still at this point. Today, and every day, black lives matter.