When Education Becomes Protest

BY VERONICA VARELA

“I’m scared, Miss,” he said as he pushed his seat back from the table. His face was in his palms, tears racing down his arms. “I’m scared that one day this will happen, and I will be dead in the street.” My kids are struggling, and I don’t know what to say. There are no words for this. I can’t breathe. 


Inside of the high school where I teach, there is a quote that my students pass by every day: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” – Martin Luther King Jr. 


Photo by @bydvnlln. Check out an interview with the photographer here.

Photo by @bydvnllnCheck out an interview with the photographer here.

The news, as of late, has been brutal. Unrelenting. Painful. I wish you could hear their stories. I wish you could see the look in their eyes. I wish you knew their names. Because while the last handful of months may seem shocking to some people in this country, it has never been shocking to my students. They know. They’ve always known. This is their reality ‐ our reality. My kids are hurting. We’re all hurting. We’re tired. I can’t begin to explain how tired we are. 

I could give you facts and articles, statistics and numbers. I could give you history, and current events, and a hundred documentaries. I could give you everything I know about systemic injustice, and I could tell you about how it is betraying millions of people in this country, but it is all so empty if you don’t see their faces, don’t hear their voices, don’t know their names. There are people who are hurting. We hurt. 


 It is that pit in my stomach that one of my desks may be empty tomorrow if something doesn’t change today. It is the rotting residue of a country that still chooses to value certain lives over others. 


The reality is, Baltimore isn’t just Baltimore. Baltimore is Ferguson. It is New York City. It is Atlanta. It is LA. Baltimore is food deserts and failing schools, disproportionate prison cells and segregated churches. It is the hand that reaches for holster when Sean reaches for his ID on the way to school. It is Damion scared for his life, sitting at my desk in tears ‐ knowing one mistake may cost him his life. It is that pit in my stomach that one of my desks may be empty tomorrow if something doesn’t change today. It is the rotting residue of a country that still chooses to value certain lives over others. 

Sometimes we protest. Sometimes we walkout, or boycott, or strike. Sometimes, revolution is 350 black and brown high schoolers, sitting in the heart of Los Angeles, demanding they get the education they deserve. Sometimes, protest is Alex refusing to drop out ‐ even though every school he has been in, up until now, has hardly prepared him to be here. It is Kristina staying for hours every day to study ACT questions so that she can get into college. It is our students clinging to the future that this world is trying to pry out of their fingertips, and it is hundreds of brave little souls with the audacious hope that things can be different.  Protest is being handed a broken system and demanding it change. Sometimes it is marching in the streets, but for my students, protest is as simple as going to school and believing they can have a future in a world that daily tells them otherwise.  


May we choose to look into the eyes of the hurting, and not look away. May we cling to hope and listen to their voices. May we enter into suffering and stand in solidarity with the oppressed. 


 Inside of the high school where I teach, there is a quote that my students pass by every day: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” – Martin Luther King Jr.  

Today, that is my hope for them, and for me, and for us. Some weeks are flying weeks, but this one, this one right here, this was a knees to the floor, hands on the ground, inch by inch, crawling. May we choose to look into the eyes of the hurting, and not look away. May we cling to hope and listen to their voices. May we enter into suffering and stand in solidarity with the oppressed. Whatever we choose to do, we have to keep moving forward. The lives of my students depend on it.