By Xicana Ph.D.
If our schools are not safe, where are the places we can walk with safety? Our schools are not safe. At least that is what my students told me one morning when they were asked to take a survey. One student said a survey question out loud, “Do you feel safe at school?” His friend responded, “hell no”. I asked him and his friends why. I knew already, but I wanted to hear it from them. Their voices. Their perspectives. I heard that it wasn’t only at school. It was outside of school too.
There are things that my students worry about that I wish they didn’t have to, but I have known these things well. I see in the neighborhoods why my students feel this as I drive around to teach at three high schools everyday. For years I have whispered that the writing is on the wall as I pass different neighborhoods and see different names up, the next day see the names crossed out, different names go up and then eventually one day painted over by the city.
A blank canvas.
But the writing never leaves the wall, it’s only hidden behind layers of paint and generations of acting as if we are all content with the underlying social conditions that lead to violence in our communities, schools, and homes. The cycles continue. The tension builds up where it left off, then there is a crisis that requires immediate attention and in the wake of destruction, we find our way back to what seemingly appears to be the calm. We are still in the midst of a storm, and the only calm is when the eye of the hurricane gives us a pause briefly before raging again. How can we ever let our bodies and minds be at ease to learn if we haven’t repaired or rebuilt the world and our communities, our schools, our homes to be safe for us and our children?
Yet we are expected to learn this way. We are expected to teach this way. We are expected to function “normally”. We are expected to smile. We are expected to live. We are expected to run on fumes, when our brains and bodies want calm. None of this has ever been sustainable.
As my recent leave was ending, anxiety and grief overwhelmed me as I saw in the news the tragic death of a young boy who attended one of the schools I work at and as I sat there a month later with my class at this school, I could see the trauma of these incidents are still with us. This is trauma we can’t teach away with social emotional learning workshops or by teaching tolerance for a day or two. It is trauma that will not be cured with a guest speaker talking about things totally disconnected from our day to day reality as teachers or the day to day reality of our students. We need something more. We try to do anything we are trained to do, but it is hard when there are 101 possible reasons your class will be disrupted on any given day and even 1 reason is enough to have to adjust whatever magnificent intervention or brilliant life changing lesson you thought you had planned.
Things never go as planned-with teaching or in life, but we try our best with whatever little resources we are given including our own.
Some may say solutions can be found in various social justice spaces, but what I have learned from being involved in many social justice spaces is that there are many spaces with “leaders” that simply brush over certain traumas and excuse violence perpetuated by themselves or their friends while they preach to be the experts on these matters. Real community doesn’t exist without community accountability and I have heard responses one too many times that are simply excuses or denial. They’ll respond with “It is a personal matter” or “they are lying” when truth is they simply can’t be bothered to hold themselves or leaders in their own groups accountable. I think to myself over and over again, that if “leaders” can’t even do that, explain to me how the rest of us should follow their examples of “social justice leadership”, I personally can not live with those contradictions anymore.
Our communities have been facing mounds of inequality for generations. We have had trauma that has gone on unresolved for generations and we can’t keep pretending that we have all the answers without being honest. Violence is normalized both from the streets/outside world where a mass shooting is in the news every couple days to the more “personal violence” of domestic violence.
There are days I have felt similar to my students, that there is no safe place inside or outside of school, but these days, I get to go home now to a place that is. It is the most revolutionary thing I could’ve ever done for myself and my older son, who unfortunately lived through traumatic times with me, but who was also my motivation to seek safety, which also meant cutting off many people. What happens when you are forced to be in unsafe spaces though? What happens when your body and mind is constantly in fight or flight mode even after the threat is removed? Our students and many of us are exhausted from the past few years of our systems working in overdrive.
Now with my husband and our new son, I can feel more of these moments with safety than I have ever felt before and that makes me a better teacher, but more importantly allows me to be more importantly a better mama, partner, daughter, sister, friend, community member and overall healthier person although the remnants of past violence I’ve experienced still impact my brain/body. Perhaps some of this sounds too individualistic, but it truly does start with us, it doesn’t have to, I wish I could say it starts in community, but until we are honest about the communities we are apart of and how even social justice spaces lack accountability, then we can’t ever truly build safety. We all deserve to live and breathe with safety somewhere for a moment everyday in this world. And, I do believe Ethnic Studies, classes like the one I teach, can give students the space, the feeling of safety in school even if just to say honestly how one feels. This is a space we all deserve, especially our young people. Let’s keep building, growing, and making tiny steps forward with safety as not just the goal, but part of the journey.
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