I didn’t want to watch the video of the young girl refusing to exit her classroom, but when it kept popping up in my social media feeds I gave in. What I saw was a girl, violently flipped onto the floor by a man in uniform, apparently because she refused to leave the classroom as demanded by her teacher.
What I really saw was a child being harmed by an adult.
Here is what I know: I taught 18-year-old students for eight years. These students were on the cusp of adulthood. They had adult-sized bodies but kid-level maturity. Teenagers are young. They are figuring things out. They trying to find their way across the bridge from childhood to adulthood; trying to define things like balance, responsibility, and security. They are trying to forge their own path, making plenty of mistakes along with way.
Because teens are simmering in their own uncertainty and shaky confidence, they are vulnerable. They might show this vulnerability in undesirable ways: people-pleasing, rebellion, acceptance (of the wrong things), or an all-over bad attitude. The adults in their lives walk a fine line between guiding, encouraging, and disciplining.
I found through my years of teaching (and being an unofficial counselor) that teens need grace, forgiveness, many second chances, high-fives, affirmation, empathy, and firmness. They need you to be who you are supposed to be: the adult. The adult, who by default, should be mature, patient, mindful, and wise.
The girl in the video did what some teenagers do: she stood her ground. She decided that for whatever reason, she wasn’t getting out of that desk. She wasn’t going to obey the authority of the adults involved. (Could it have been, in part, the fact that she is traumatized by recently losing her mother and grandmother, forcing the teen into foster care? Possibly.)
On the day of the classroom incident, “authority” taught the girl and her peers that it’s ok for adults to use their size, strength, and rank or position to strip a child of her dignity, to overturn her, literally, to get her to comply.
The video struck terror in my heart as not only a former educator, but as a mom of three black children, two of whom are girls. Black girls (and women) are often stereotyped as loud, sassy, street-wise, and angry. They are also stereotyped as being incredibly emotionally strong, able to endure the toughest of situations and circumstances.
These stereotypes send black girls the following message: they need to be resilient. They are expected to endure, even when tolerating a situation isn’t healthy. They should accept authority, no matter if that authority is wrong, unfair, or, in this case, violent.
The girl in the video stood her ground, right or wrong. In doing so, she made the responder, the school’s security officer, very angry. She wasn’t complying, and therefore in his mind, she was deserving of extreme, prompt, and violent punishment.
As the general public moves past what happened (and on to the next big story), this girl will not. What happened to her will change the course of her life in some way. It will impact the decisions she makes. It will shape her perception of authority, of the education system, of white people, of men. It will impact future relationships where trust is involved.
I don’t know exactly how this situation has affected, and will continue to affect, the girl. What I do know is that the trusted and authorized adult didn’t act like the adult. I know that videos like these, showing violence against young people of color, strike fear in my heart.
Expecting teenagers to always react rationally, obediently, and flawlessly is hardly realistic. Remember, they are in a season of life where they are “figuring things out.” Some teens, like the girl in the video, might be dealing with some very adult problems, though they aren’t experienced or mature enough to know the best and most appropriate response.
Maybe this young woman felt vulnerable, threatened, and disrespected, so she chose to stay seated. Maybe because staying seated felt safer than getting up. Maybe she just needed a few moments to get herself together when she knew the situation was escalating. Maybe she was paralyzed in anger or fear. Maybe she was struck by how cornered she suddenly was and knew there was no escape, no possible positive outcome. Maybe the emotions of losing her mother and grandmother came to a head on that particular day, presenting itself in the form of defiance.
We expect teenagers to face challenges they are uncertain how to handle. As for the adults in those same challenging situations? Adults should know better than to react irrationally and violently. Adults should model better. Adults should offer grace, even when it’s demanded of them in the most un-graceful of ways.More On