Author’s note: All names have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.
“If you write me a referral, I’ll punch you in the face,” Ashelynne hissed under her breath.
“What did you say?” Janie demanded. She was a young mixed-race girl, sixteen years old, who carried her solid weight with pride and power. Right then, she sat up straight at her desk and broadened her shoulders. “Don’t talk to Miss Renner like that!”
“Relax, Janie,” I said, coming over to stand by her desk. I didn’t breathe again until Ashelynne turned her attention to her phone. Even as I started a circuit of the room, I glanced back at them. Once, twice—on the third time, I saw Janie look toward the fluorescent lights, tears glossing her hazel eyes. I asked her if she wanted to take a walk to cool off, and she stormed out of the room. Her friend Lilly followed, and soon after, the loud crash of a fist against a locker echoed down the hallway.
That night, I replayed the scene between Ashelynne and Janie until the bitter tang of stomach acid rose in the back of my throat. I did the wrong thing, I thought. I should have written Ashelynne the referral. Instead, I was stupid, and Janie had to defend me, and I had the nerve to tell her to relax—to treat her how so many teachers and bosses do, like the stereotypical angry black girl. I shouldn’t treat anyone like that, especially Janie. She always talked to me like a person; without asking, she knew when I felt down, and drew tattoo designs for me to hang on my bulletin board to make me feel better.
When Janie greeted me, smiling, at my door for lunch the next day, I felt even worse. The way I stood by yesterday hadn’t even phased her. Or else she’d forgiven me already. While they ate soggy mozzarella sticks off styrofoam trays, Janie and her friends talked about Ashelynne, the usual gossip and smack talk. Then Ashelynne herself blundered in, shouting my name in her usual sing-song greeting as if she hadn’t threatened me the day before. She ignored Janie and their other friends and finally took her place at the back table by herself.
A feud was brewing between them, one in which they would attempt to implicate me. Fueled by the ubiquitous hate of the 2016 presidential campaign, ugly prejudices deeply rooted in our Southern community would slither into the light. A video circulated on Facebook showed a Daytona man exit his Trump sticker-plastered truck and menace a black couple with a baseball bat after having chased them for miles. Southeast of us, at Oviedo High School, administrators found hate speech written on a bathroom wall: “Yall Black ppl better start picking yall slave numbers. KKK. 4Lyfe. Go Trump. 2016.” And in Jacksonville, at First Coast High School, an unidentified student placed signs over water fountains, one reading “Colored,” the other, “Whites only.”
On the frontlines of all of this, I held everything in, and it ate away at me. Every night, I drank a slurry of baking soda and water to stop my stomach from digesting itself. Single and parentless, I had few people I could talk to apart from my students, other teachers, and a vapid therapist who seemed entertained by my stories. Talking to my students about drama or politics would risk my job. As for my fellow teachers, some of them are so right-wing evangelical that they use the Bible in their classrooms. A few coworkers, like my friend Cara, understand. We tell each other stories and get the swearing out of our systems when the kids aren’t around.
Teaching is a precarious profession. In the county where I work, tenure no longer exists. All new hires start on a yearly contract, which means principals can terminate them without giving a reason why. I’m scared to express my beliefs. I’m afraid to write referrals. I’m even afraid to write this essay because what will I do if I lose my job? My dad is dead. My mother is schizophrenic. The school is my support system. It is everything I have.
Cliques in the school courtyard mimic the makeup of New Smyrna Beach. A mass of white students in camouflage, jeans, and boots hangs out at the far end by the agriculture classrooms. Most of them live in the pine scrub west of town or the tidelands to the south. On the opposite side of the courtyard, a group of black kids leans on the windows under the flag. Many of these kids live in the few blocks of historical clapboard houses up by the railroad tracks. Others live north of town in Daytona or in Edgewater to the south.
Neither Ashelynne nor Janie hung out much with the groups in the courtyard. Instead, both gravitated toward my classroom. On the outside, Ashelynne seemed like Janie’s polar opposite. Every day, she showed me pictures on her phone: “cute” country guys, her new pink jeep, four-hundred-dollar sunglasses she bought for her boyfriend. More than her materialism, Ashelynne took pride in being country. Not long before the election, Ashelynne and her boyfriend hitched full-size Confederate and American flags upright to the tailgate of his truck and raced the length of town hollering “Make America Great Again!” with the flags flapping in their wake, her own brand of high school terrorism.
New Smyrna Beach High School draws from every part of our community: We have undocumented immigrant kids, homeless students, kids that flash into the parking lot in their parents’ new Beamers; kids who rely on school food and hunch over work in my classroom, radiating dreams beyond any they’ve seen achieved. We have first-generation Americans, ninth-generation Americans, Native Americans; kids who work full-time waiting tables, kids fixing to inherit their dad’s auto body shop, kids who just want to escape, trans kids who feel scared and alone, kids with kids of their own, kids with homemaker fathers, kids with engineer mothers, kids with no parents at all. More than a thousand students traverse these halls every day, and while I find their differences beautiful, I also see the tensions between them.
During the campaign, one of my students, Jack, plastered his truck with “Make America Great Again” yard signs and swerved around the parking lot blocking his classmates in. He did this without a pattern, harassing kids of all races and political bents, including a redneck friend of his who later joked about the incident to me. Although Jack’s behavior mimicked the emotional terrorism of racially charged incidents throughout our country’s history, what stood out to me most was that Jack, who often wrote satirical answers to my essay prompts just to make me laugh, did not connect his actions to the bullying or intimidation that they mirrored. He didn’t have to. He never had to consider that the consequences of his actions might be tied to his race; he just wanted to get a rise out of people. He honestly thought it was funny.
“People were getting so mad!” Jack said, grinning the day after. When I expressed my concern that this might be considered harassment or worse, Jack’s eyebrows pinched together, and he said, absolutely sincere, “They know I’m just messing with them.”
I remember being Jack’s age and blinded by the same privilege. As a teenager, I believed racism was a thing of the past. To me, Mary McLeod Bethune, who created the school that would later become Bethune-Cookman University, was the most famous Daytonan. Though schools weren’t desegregated here until 1969, fifteen years after Brown v. Board of Education, my dad’s stories from that time taught me that every person, no matter their skin color, deserved to be treated with kindness and respect.
Just like many of my white students, I experienced the election turmoil through a lens of privilege. But through my years of teaching, I had become aware that others were not so safe. Right out of college, I was a substitute at schools in Deltona. That same year, Trayvon Martin was murdered in the town across the lake. He was the same age as my students. Only a few miles away, it could have so easily been one of them.
If that thought scared me, how afraid were they? Their lives were at risk going to the gas station for a snack. I knew I would never experience that kind of fear. My timidity and my anxiety over losing my job paled in comparison.
So I started trying to stand up. When another student, Zeke, wore a shirt that read “Hillary for Prison” over a devilish caricature of the candidate’s laughing face, my cheeks flushed and my insides clenched up—and then I remembered: He was a sixteen-year-old boy. “Nice polo shirt,” I said. Our uniform code required the students to wear polos. Zeke was out of dress code.
He wanted to provoke me, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. He was there to learn. When he took his seat at the back table, I only had to glance at him, and he zipped his jacket closed.
For the most part, Janie stuck with Lily a tiny, four-foot-ten white girl, and Ashelynne kept to Kaylee, her mixed-race best friend of ten years. Diah, Janie’s distant cousin, acted as the go-between. After Ashelynne’s threat and the altercation that followed, the precarious balance in their group toppled. Ashelynne and Janie took turns claiming my room during lunch. Whoever got there first tried to gossip about the other, but I pleaded with them and told them I couldn’t take sides. They took their venom online.
“I’m not going to be in class today,” Janie said to me one day. “Can I get the work?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” Janie said, “I’m not friends with Lily any more.” She looked up, shaking her head, her lip curled in disgust. “Ashelynne called me the n-word. Lily said that wasn’t her being racist. Like that’s just how some people talk. But it’s not fucking okay. ”
“I’m so sorry, Janie,” I said. “This really sucks.”
She said she’d gotten in a fight with Lily. “Now I’m in detention for sixth period. Two days.”
“You can still come hang out at lunch,” I said. “But I can talk to Mr. Forester too. I don’t want you to be in trouble.”
Janie shook her head. “But I should be.”
I ran into Forester later on my way to the office. He told me not to worry about any of it. He said it was being handled, and he asked if I was doing okay.
I wanted to demand that he give Janie a chance to explain. Public schools have a bad history of disciplining black students, especially girls, more harshly than their white peers. According to data collected by the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 12 percent of black female students will be suspended at some point in their lives. That is more than male students or female students of any other race. The data snapshot further states that “While black students represent 16 percent of student enrollment, they represent 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.” I wouldn’t let that happen to Janie, especially because this had all spun out from her defending me.
I paused in the front-office hallway, and Forester stopped with me. “This whole thing with Janie and Lily,” I said, “is so much more complicated than it seems.”
“I know,” he said.
But did he, really?
The trouble with Janie and Ashelynne stretched on for months. Sometimes Janie spent class in another teacher’s room to get away from Ashelynne. Other times, I let Ashelynne sit in the hall. One day, when they all tried to leave, I said, “Enough,” and forced everyone to stay. I was done letting the fight gnash around me. At the first racist whisper, I said, “Not in my classroom,” and the class returned to their work in silence.
In May, I received an email about a student’s upcoming suspension: Ashelynne would be out for a week and a half. Mr. Forester got to the root of things after all. He believed Janie, convinced the girls to talk to each other, and supported their efforts to make peace. I had expected more of the same: Janie being scapegoated because of her race, Ashelynne and Lily getting away with whatever they wanted. To my surprise, I was proud of Mr. Forester and my school.
Dregs of drama still swirled between Janie, Lily, and Diah, but together they agreed to cut Ashelynne out. The day after the email, Janie sat in the desk closest to mine during lunch, her usual seat. Visibly relaxed without Ashelynne in the room, Janie hunched to color a tattoo design of Stitch, the little blue alien experiment from her favorite movie, Lilo & Stitch . “Do you like it?” Janie said, holding up her design.
“I do,” I answered, grinning.
Janie went on to tell me about her beef with a local tattoo artist. She pulled up Instagram on her phone and showed me a mushy tattoo of the same little blue alien. “Look what he did to Stitch!”
“Yikes. That’s on somebody’s—”
“He should have gone back and inked the lines. This is just—”
“Right?” Janie shook her head, and I had to smile. She was so opinionated. Sometimes, when I talked to her, I regretted my own filter. Because of it, I’d let her down.
While she inked the outside lines of her design with a fine-tipped Sharpie I loaned her, I thought back to all the turmoil that got us to that moment. I remembered hearing about how Ashelynne had called Janie the n-word, how sick I felt that someone could harbor so much hate toward someone I love, and how, just like with the election—just like with the venomous rhetoric all over the internet, the streets, and the school—I felt like there was nothing I could do.
After Janie finished her creation, she handed over the pen and scooted behind me to the bulletin board. Plucking a tack from the fabric, she stuck it with the art gifts from my other students: silly cats, an oil-pastel tree, an inside-joke chicken leg, and half a dozen poems. When she returned to her seat, she lifted the black literature textbook to her desk, ready to tackle some late work. “You know, Miss Renner, you’re one of my favorite teachers,” she said.
“What?” I said, surprised. “Why?”
Janie looked at me sideways and smiled. “You care, you know? It seems like most people don’t. You’re not like my other teachers. You actually listen.”
I do try to listen to my students. But I now understand that listening is not enough. It wasn’t Janie’s job to defend me, and hers should not be the only voice in the school speaking out against hate.
I will always feel like I didn’t do enough for her, but I can work and try to be better. My classroom seems like a small world to me, but it’s huge to the young people in it. If they see me stand up to hate, maybe they will, too. That’s how change starts, I think, when we find the courage to speak.