Earlier this week, a 16-year-old black girl was brutally assaulted by a cop in her South Carolina classroom after she refused to comply with orders to surrender her cellphone and leave the room. She suffered multiple arm and back injuries as a result of the altercation. It has since been reported that she was recently estranged from her mother, uprooted and placed in the foster care system.
I’ve been thinking about the year I was 16 a lot this week. Eighteen years ago this weekend, a school friend and I went to Long Island to visit her family for fall break. I don’t remember much about the trip except that the fall leaves were geranium-red and the sky was blue and the sound was cold. It was my first visit to the Northeast.
On the last morning of my visit, the phone rang in the kitchen; I was in another room. A few minutes later, Mila’s mom came in and handed me the phone. She was holding her mouth like people hold their hands when they’re suddenly self-conscious and don’t know what to do with them. On the phone, my father’s voice cracked. My father, it’s worth noting, is given to burying the lede; he once spent 15 minutes telling me about the music at my great-uncle’s funeral mass before admitting that the real reason he was calling was that my little sister was in the ICU. But all I remember him saying, without introduction or embellishment, was this: “Your mom died.”
So I got on an airplane and went home to my high school. Not to Chicago, where my family was — where my dead mother was — but to Chatham Hall, a prep school in Virginia that had given me a scholarship the previous year. In retrospect, it seems like such a strange thing to have done. But my first instinct was to fly to school first, then on to Chicago the next day. My best friend met me at the airport and we went together, back to our strange little school community in the middle of nowhere. Susu, the school chaplain, met us on the front steps and embraced me. Her parents died when she was a teenager, too, she told me.
I was difficult that year. Like all teenagers, I was not yet fully formed, so my anger was strange and unpredictable — inchoate, inarticulate. I didn’t go to class much. I read voraciously, but rarely the books I had been assigned. I read “Slaughterhouse Five” in the middle of a science class one week. At one point, someone told me my GPA was 1.9. I don’t think I ever checked it myself. My dad and my adviser, Dr. Black, spent hours in worried phone meetings wondering if I would ever turn in my junior term paper.
My teachers and deans could have asked me to leave. Instead, they lent me books and checked on me in my dorm room when I didn’t come to class. They let me read Vonnegut in physics if I really needed to. They renewed my scholarship. They kept inviting me to things, even if I was sullen or withdrawn, and they never, ever forced me to do anything.
The academic dean at the time was Claudia Emerson, a poet who would later receive a Pulitzer Prize for her own meditations on loss in “Late Wife.” Claudia, bless her, devised a plan to prevent me from failing Spanish by — well, no. You know what? I failed Spanish because I preferred to go talk to her. But she did arrange for me to take a Spanish class at a community college in the Chicago suburbs that summer, and for my grade in that class to magically appear on my Chatham transcript so that no one would ever know I had failed Spanish. So I could reinvent myself later as a good student, the kind of student who would not fail Spanish.
My high school was a safe place. Safe when I was difficult, safe when I was sullen. A place to think, to ask questions, to reinvent and regrow as I mourned.
I can’t stop thinking about the 16-year-old girl in South Carolina. You’ve probably seen a tiny cell phone video of her as a man twice her size looms over her, grabs her by the neck, flips her over the chair, and drags her across the classroom. When I watch this video, my whole body tenses as that man stalks toward her. I hope yours does, too.
I recognize that slouch in the cramped desk, those closed shoulders. Sullen, withdrawn, maybe looking at her phone. Her high school is not a safe place for her to think or ask questions or mourn an estrangement. Half a second after that flash of recognition, the policeman is bearing down on her neck.
For years after my mom died, I struggled with hyper-vigilance. The persistent expectation that something was about to go terribly wrong was embedded in my very muscles and nerves and peripheral vision. I was perpetually raw, scanning the horizon for the next disaster. I would jump at shadows at the corners of my vision, convinced that someone or something was bearing down on me. I’m still easily startled when people approach me from behind or touch me unexpectedly.
In the midst of my privileged mourning, I chafed at how authority figures treated me like a victim in the first months after my mother died. But no one ever took my sullen silence as license to victimize me. No one ever bore down on me. Here is white privilege again: that even my most aggressive moments raging against the machine at 16 were framed (rather to my frustration) as part of a sad story in which I was a victim, not a threat.
Conversely, even the calm silence of the black student in the video in the moments before she is assaulted is construed as aggression. My teenage sullenness was called grief by teachers even when it wasn’t. Her grief is willfully ignored — and, when it cannot be ignored, stamped on with brutality and violence.
I am not black. The mere assertion that my life matters does not start any national debates. I have lived in a world where not only my life, but most of my thoughts and feelings, were assumed on their face to matter. When my world was upended, the adults in my classrooms did everything they could to make me feel safe.
So I try to imagine myself sitting in that classroom reading Vonnegut 18 years ago, ignoring my teacher. I imagine something emerging on the horizon of my vision, grasping my neck and slamming me into the ground during that, the most vulnerable year of my life. The world would have tilted disastrously.