I would like to tell you about some of the boys I know. I met them when I taught high school in inner-city Brooklyn. They are black; I am white.
D has poetry in his head. Growing up in a rough part of the city, he is steeped in rap. The words are in his mind all the time, a constant pulse.
This makes him a great writer, a poet. Whenever we need to review a story or play, I ask my high school students to get in groups and write a rap. They all always want D in their group. The rhymes tangle out of his mouth like braided, twisting silk. I wish I had videos to show you: the rap “Scarlet Letter,” the rap “Hamlet,” the rap “Raisin in the Sun.” All amazing.
D is an artist, a creator, in debt to mentors I don’t know. It feels like magic to have this in my English classroom, as if da Vinci and Rembrandt were seated in Introduction to Visual Art.
R is another boy I’d like you to know. He asks me to help him with an essay about race for another class. He doesn’t want to write, fidgets, pouts, when I try to draw it out of him. I tell him to write what he wants to say right now, and then we’ll figure out how to shape it into an essay later. He agrees.
OK, he says after a while. You can read this. I sit down in front of his computer, prop my head up on my hand and read an essay that describes a divided town, a place where black people live in one part and the white people live in the other. It’s nothing great, by which I mean I’ve read it a dozen times before.
Then the essay changes, starts explaining how R was on the basketball court and there were pops and the next thing he can remember, he was looking down at the blood draining out of his stepfather, on the ground. Reading it, I couldn’t stop crying. He couldn’t either.
So, how can I make this into an essay, R asks? I try to show him, both of us sopping up our tears with tissues as we run SpellCheck, talk about thesis statements.
“Thank you for sharing this with me,” I say when he’s done printing it out. “Thank you for reading it,” he says.
I have to tell you about M, too. In class, he imitates me, viciously, perfectly.
“Well, I don’t know, Shannon,” M says, calling me by my first name when he knows he should say “Ms. Reed.” “What do you think we should do, Shannon? I am so concerned about your grade, Shannon.”
It goes on and on, this perfect parody of me talking to me about my grades, and the whole class is roaring. No one else takes this kind of risk, lives right on the edge of insolence and respect.
I make M do the imitation again and again, over weeks, and he never falters. It’s always perfect. He wants to be a comedian, and I tell him I think he can be, but to please, please go to college, too, learn some discipline, get a degree so that he can do something else while he works on his big break.
Oh, there’s J as well. J is an actor, the real deal. The kid can go from nothing to full-on, full-fledged rage in a matter of seconds. He’s got that well he can tap into.
He gets pretty far in a major acting competition and the teachers and students from our school go to see him in the finals, on a Broadway stage. Most of the kids up there look like they’re lost, but not J. He’s at home. He belongs. He tears the stage up. He astounds. Strangers next to me speak his name in hushed, reverent tones. He’ll be someone, they say.
He wins. Of course. There is no other option. When they call his name, we scream in the audience, leap to our feet, crying, hugging. He turns to us, dazed, and shrugs. Huh, he seems to be saying, I’m a genius.
These black boys I know, their faces float in front of me this night. I can see them smiling, crying, laughing, scared. I don’t know where any of them is right at this moment. I hope they are safe. I hope they are happy. I miss them.
I am white. I am childless. I am single. I have never been arrested, never had any conflict with the authorities. I have walked up to New York City police officers and asked for help and gotten it quickly and been relieved by their kindness to me.
Yet here I am, white, childless, upstanding citizen, female, weeping, because I can no longer pretend that the black men and boys who died — Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, the others — don’t look like my boys. If my boys’ lives matter, then their lives mattered, too. And I know that my boys’ lives matter.
I cannot bear that my boys might have the same fate.
I cannot bear that any boys have such a fate.
What are we going to do?
Shannon Reed is finishing her MFA in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. A theater and writing teaching artist for City Theatre and Pittsburgh Public Theater, she lives in Monroeville (www.shannonreed.org).