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My Baltimore eighth-graders’ response to the question, ‘What now?’ left me speechless

Editor’s Note: Freddie Gray’s death while in Baltimore police custody has sparked protests throughout the country and has spotlighted the anger and frustration that many residents feel toward police. After Gray’s funeral on Monday, previously-peaceful protests erupted into an uprising that led Baltimore to declare a state of emergency, closing schools citywide. Baltimore teacher Valencia Clay describes the confusion and shock her students have felt from recent events and their thoughts on how to move forward.


This week when a clash broke out at Mondawmin Mall, all I could think about was the safety of my students, who make up the majority of my Baltimore family.

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WBAL’s breaking news flashed cross-streets like Reisterstown and Liberty, Gwynn Falls and Swan, Eutaw and Franklin, and the closest to my home, Pennsylvania and North. I watched the news all night, hoping I wouldn’t see one of my babies in any of the crossfire. I just wanted the night to end. I wanted the next day to come as fast as it could so that I would be able to comfort my students and make sure they were safe.

But that wasn’t going to happen. We received word that the city was in a state of emergency and schools would be closed until further notice. Many of my colleagues were outraged with this decision. Wouldn’t the children be safer in school?

The next morning, I received a text from my school’s administration: “Good morning. We’re hoping you are available this morning to come to SBCS to plan how we will greet our kids on Wednesday and how we will support them. We want our kids to know how much they are loved.”

I walked into our school’s library to find 20 other teachers in breakout sessions, planning the most appropriate ways to re-welcome our students into school. The elementary grades decided to engage the little ones by using art as a healer. They chose to use a coloring picture of a row house with open arms that read, “Give our city a hug,” drawn by one of our art teachers on the night of the riots. They also created a mural on a bulletin board in the school’s main hall that read, “A Love Letter to Baltimore,” on which all of the students from grades kindergarten to eighth grade could post their own message.

In the middle grades where I teach, we knew our students would want to be heard. We devised a lesson plan that revolved around one essential question: What now?

Every member of the faculty arrived to school bright and early on Wednesday morning, with smiles and hugs for every child, trying our best to create a sense of normalcy. But it wasn’t normal. There was so much confusion on the faces of the children. Emotions were high and there was an eerie silence among them all. I couldn’t just jump straight into the conversation of “what now” until I altered the temperature of the classroom.

First, I gave my eighth graders 60 seconds to hug as many of their peers as they could. By the time the students returned to the circle on the carpet in the middle of the room, they were smiling.

I framed our discussion with a message: This morning, we are going to spend some time reflecting on what has been going on in our city. Be as open and honest about how you are feeling. I welcome your questions. If anything makes you feel uncomfortable or too upset, please do not hesitate to tell me. This classroom is your safe space. Then, we facilitated a one-word whip, which allowed me to gauge the mood of each student.

“Disgusted.”

“Disappointed.”

“Confused.”

“Shocked.”

“Embarrassed.”

Each of their words made the room feel dreary again.

“We thought it was all a laughing matter for people to look down on our city but now that we see all of the riots and stuff … it’s not funny,” one student said. “This is why people judge us.”

“If it was me, if I was old enough, I would be out there, too, but not doing it like they are doing it,” another said. But she seemed torn. “I think people are just fed up with police brutality.”

One student explained to the others that there was a difference between protests and riots. “What they did yesterday, that was riots. They took this protesting as an excuse and took advantage of Freddie Gray’s death to rob stores and for petty items,” he said.

“But at the end of the day, violence, period, doesn’t help any situation. Its like punching a hole in the wall; at the end of the day, you gon’ have to fix that hole. It’s just like 1968. They set us back as a city.” The student looked around as her peers agreed with her but I could see it in her face, in this moment, she wished that she wasn’t right.

This conversation went on for another few minutes. Each of them was respectful, letting one another speak, even when they disagreed with someone else’s rhetoric. With only fifteen minutes left in the period, I still needed them to process their thoughts in writing. I advised them to take their passion to their pens and reflect on the question: What now? I wasn’t ready for their responses:

“Keep the National Guard on deck.”

“Don’t believe everything you see on TV and online.”

“Don’t go outside past curfew or you might get hurt.”

“We need more leadership from the older people since the government doesn’t care about us.”

I was speechless. Was I really talking to a group of eighth-graders? The only question I could ask them next was, “Do you feel safe?”

“Yes and no. It just depends on where I am. I know they won’t come near my house or rob our corner stores in my hood.”

“They taking anger out on the police, not me.”

“I feel safe at school and at home but not when I’m out anymore.”

“I don’t feel safe because if they don’t find those officers guilty it’s going to get worse.”

“It’s not safe but it’s our home so we have to make it better.”

“What if the National Guard shoots us accidentally?”

With less than five minutes left, the only thing I had time to do was debrief and wrap up our discussion, using the question: How do you feel now?

Many members of the class felt relieved and said they were glad they had the opportunity to express themselves. This confirmed to me that having this discussion was vital. “I thought we were not going to talk about it and I was going to have to keep my feelings inside,” one student said. “My feelings were respected today.”

Valencia Clay is an eighth-grade literacy teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter School in Baltimore.

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