Making the Call

Sometimes educators have to make hard decisions that put the needs of the many over the needs of one. Morningside Center staff developer and blogger Dionne Grayman tells about a wrenching choice she had to make.

I usually saw Shaun during one of his many hall laps, when he would literally pass the door to the Restorative Practices room about half a dozen times in a given period during the school day.

Shaun did not belong to the core group of students who had claimed me as their own, complete with hugs and a gazillion “Can I stay with you?!” requests. Nor did he belong to the larger group of sweet smilers, enthusiastic wavers, and “Are we having Circle today?” petitioners, so I didn’t “know” him. But I knew who he was through snippets of overheard conversations between his classmates that conferred upon him a kind of “rebel without a cause” status. And I’d heard whispered comments by teachers who labeled him as either a misunderstood saint or an unrepentant sinner. I knew that he “knew” who I was and what I did, just as I “knew” who he was and what he did. We had both made inquiries with our respective reliable and definitely biased sources.

Over the school year, with each of us having arrived at our own assumptions about the other, we shared space that, though distant, was free of hostility and negative energy. In other words, I SAW him and he SAW me. It has been my experience that with certain young people, it is better to leave the door open for them to walk through when they feel comfortable than it is to walk through the door yourself.

On this particular Wednesday, my door was literally open when Shaun and two other young men, Jeffrey and Jordan, who were the cool boy equivalents of huggers and smiling wavers came into the RP room. Both the bell and late bell had come and gone, so apparently I was a pit stop during one of the aforementioned building laps. It is my practice to chat with students before sending them on their delayed way as a temperature check, because sometimes young people need a minute. Sometimes not allowing a student in distress to take a break practically begs for a breakdown in the not-too-distant future.  

My “What’s up, guys? Where are y’all supposed to be?” was met with noncommittal grunts and small talk. Then a dean walked into the room and handed two of the three boys including the hall lapper, a sheet of paper with SUSPENSION written on it in bold type. When Shaun asked what the letter was for, the dean told him to read it and strongly suggested that he return to school with a parent. Jeffrey, the other holder of the not-so-golden ticket crumpled his up without a glance. When the dean’s speech and time in the room ended, the boys’ anger began.

As I walked them to the door, I attempted to talk them through possible next steps and strategies around self-advocacy. I also tried to quietly reassure Jordan who didn’t receive a letter of suspension that he didn’t seem to be in trouble after noticing the anxiety he was holding in his body. After thanking me for their brief respite and free counsel, they walked, grousing, into the hallway. As I turned to walk back into the room, I heard a voice say, “I should shoot this shit up!” It was Shaun who had spoken in his deep, nearly through puberty voice. I paused, trying to unhear what I had just heard. Time stood still as I turned back around and walked to the doorway to try to get them to stop talking, to be quiet.

I tried to convince myself that I was wrong and mistaken. I hoped that none of the teachers on the third floor had heard the combination of what I strongly believed was bruised ego and pained pride. I had just about decided to let them continue walking because I didn’t want to have to make the call. But then I saw that the classroom door immediately opposite was open, and I thought about my own possible culpability in ignoring what could not be ignored. So I said, “Don’t say that. You can’t say that.” As I heard my own voice, I immediately realized my mistake. I had said “don’t, can’t” and I had done so with several feet of space between us.  I looked at Shaun, he looked at me, and I could actually hear the air leaving his body as he said it again. Louder. Stronger. Clearer.

Walking back into the room, I saw flashes of old news stories about the 26 fatal school shootings between Columbine and Santa Fe where somebody in the building knew something, heard something, and didn’t say anything. My hands shook as I lifted the receiver, cursing and trying not to cry because I knew that I had to make the call. I ran over in my mind what I could have said differently and what I had missed and what I had done incorrectly. How I could have stood next to him. Found words that might have brought him closer to me rather than create more distance. When I made the call to the dean, when I was questioned by school safety officers, and when I was told I might  have to speak to the police, I was reassured by everyone that I had done the right thing. I know that I did the right thing. But it didn’t feel good.

Because making the call on a young black man rarely, if ever, bodes well for him. Further, making the call as a black woman also puts me in very close proximity to danger and to violence. Either as witness or victim. A Google search will yield hundreds of thousands of results of what happens to black bodies when police are called: Young. Old. Man. Woman. Transgender person. Child. The black body is at decided risk when there is police involvement. And research shows that there is a collective trauma visited upon the immediate community in the aftermath of deadly interactions with police officers.

There are also the calls, more and more, made by white people who have assumed a new kind of privilege in acting as de facto police officers in filmed displays of suspicious and aggressive hostility in challenging the rights of black bodies to be in spaces. The Backyard Beckys and Corner Store Carolines are reprising paddyroller roles in their racist-fueled inquiries and accusations around black people not knowing “their place.” Making the call against the backdrop of the current climate did not feel good at all because I am very clear about the place that some people are working really hard to ensure that Shaun, Jeffrey, Jordan, and I inhabit.

Whenever I’m facilitating a circle and working with the group to generate community agreements, the two items I always offer are “make room for joy” and “forgiveness.” Both are necessary for those in a circle community to address issues, resolve conflict, problem solve collaboratively, or repair harm. And both are critical for self-care. Especially when there is little or no likelihood of opportunity for restoration.

Shaun received both a principal’s and a superintendent’s suspension, which amounted to over 30 days out of the building. Since this happened towards the end of the school year and Shaun was scheduled to graduate, there would be no restorative process with Shaun. So I had to give myself permission to forgive myself. I relied heavily on the prompts from friends and colleagues, who urged the same.

It may not be easy to make the call when there is conflict over the needs of the one and the needs of the many. But in a caring community that holds space for both the one who makes the call and the one being called about, there is at least a pathway to healing.