As I think about Black History Month and what it means to me, I remember another day in February, 10 years ago. February 26, 2012, is a hard date for me to forget. My little brother was turning five years old, excited to be of age to leave home and walk to our nearby elementary school. On the same day Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black boy in Florida, was murdered by George Zimmerman.
For me, this date represents more than a tragic loss; it represents the moment when I realized that I feared being a young Black male in our society. I remember seeing Trayvon’s image all over the news. I remember coming to school, flooded with emotions—anger, confusion, anxiety, deep sadness—all before 7:15 am that day.
In my school hallways, I heard voices whisper: “He deserved it…” or “Why was he walking around the street like that?” Only one teacher addressed what was happening at our school, bringing a sense of clarity and grounding to it all. My English teacher, Ms. Penny, shared a "Daily Show with Jon Stewart" video that talked about it—and the one line that hit me hard was, “He was walking home from the store, with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona tea.”
This was something I too did as a 17-year-old Black kid. After school, sometimes three times a week, I would go to the local liquor store and pick up a bag of Skittles and an Arizona tea. It shocked me to see that another kid, across the country, got killed for doing something that I do. I asked myself, “Why did this happen?”
All of a sudden, I felt a little spark ignite in my head. Some call this spark “the woke moment.” It was the first time I felt connected, as a young 17-year-old Black male in the United States, to a tragedy far away from my own hometown, yet one that also hit close to home. Once this happened, I knew that the spark wasn’t going to die down. I needed to know more, learn more, see more.
When students have their “spark” or “aha moment,” teachers must take action to recognize and build on their students’ strengths and interests. Ms. Penny’s following actions made a difference for a Black boy like me.
- Don’t Wait, Talk About “It”. Ms. Penny had us embrace current events by showing us clips from news sources and pushing us to reflect on these in our writing journals.
- Validate your students’ experiences. Ms. Penny reassured me that I was not alone as a Black boy feeling lost; that it is okay to feel pain and sadness. She also showed me that emotions could help me grow and pointed out that there were many leaders who have spoken words and directed action around these tragedies.
- Expose students to their cultural history. Ms. Penny made time after school to share a book or an article. Each week, I found myself reading books by the likes of James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. To this day, I think of “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison as key to my identity development.
- Encourage students’ curiosity. I also was able to share my thoughts—positive or negative—about our society and the news. Ms. Penny never judged me or stopped me when I used vulgar language; in fact, she would challenge me to add more words and language to my feelings. She shared space with me where I could make sense of the world around me.
I was lucky to have a teacher in my life who cleared the fog of confusion and paved the road that I needed to take for my journey. Feeling that warmth and guidance from my teacher, I knew that I wanted to be the “Ms. Penny” for future Black students.
As one of few Black male teachers in our profession, I take being a role model seriously. I hope that my students feel that “spark” and come to me with their thoughts and questions. I want Black and brown boys to feel brave, to process their feelings, to feel validated in their own ways of navigating the world, to pursue change, and to advocate for their communities. I want them to know that there is nothing wrong with them and that they are the ones who bring joy and light to the world. As their teacher, I’m here for them—now and into the future.