Mark Jackett is a high school special education teacher on Long Island. He lives in Port Jefferson with his wife, two daughters, two cats, and eight chickens.
It’s not easy being Black in one of Suffolk County’s big, predominantly white high schools. So when one of the handful of Black students at the high school where I teach asked me to start a Black Lives Matter club, I couldn’t say no.
I began the 2016-2017 school year wearing a small Black Lives Matter button on my lanyard. I also had a Shakespeare button, a poetry button, and a rainbow ribbon on the same lanyard. I wore this button for the first twelve days of school without incident, until I was finally confronted about it by one of our high school’s security guards. Not a student, not a parent, not an administrator or fellow teacher, but a security guard. We had a brief, tense, but civil conversation, after which I think he was surprised to find that I did not agree to remove the button.
To jump to the payoff: about fifteen minutes later, one of our assistant principals relayed a message from the principal telling me to remove the button, saying there had been “several” complaints. This, of course, was nonsense: there had been one complaint, and I knew who it was from. The administrators must have seen this as a very serious issue, as I was originally given the directive by phone, but then about twenty minutes later the assistant principal came to the library where I was working to make sure I had complied. (Let me repeat that I was also wearing a rainbow ribbon; apparently the powers that be are OK with supporting LGBTQ+ kids but not Black students.) Nonetheless, my purpose had been achieved: I had identified myself, a white teacher, as an ally to our Black students. The student, Lauren, who approached me about starting the club, was eager to address the racism that she and other students of color experience at our school and in our community.
While there have not been any major racial incidents that I’m aware of during my time in this school district, the community tends to be very conservative. Many students wore Trump T-shirts and MAGA hats during and after the most recent presidential election. I know of one Black family, two brothers, who chose to leave and attend another high school after one-too-many incidents that they felt were racially-motivated (about which I do not know details).
After some discussion, Lauren and I settled on the name “Social Justice Club,” and our club was soon approved by the school and school board. Lauren crafted a mission statement that reads: “This group recognizes the numerous acts of injustice all over the United States and we will spread the news to our peers and do our best to take action to help stop the violence and prejudice.” She went on to write that “this club will provide a safe place for students of any and all nationalities to come together and discuss the injustices that take place in our school and we can help things like racial slurs and harassment come to an end at [our school].”
We had a few meetings in spring 2017, and then the club began in earnest in the fall. I’d love to say we had a revolutionary impact on the school, but that is not the case. Our meeting attendance averaged in the single digits, with some meetings having as few as three students. We never held any events throughout the year, never created the T-shirts we had talked about, bearing the names of victims of police violence like Eric Garner and Philando Castile. But the club did provide a place for students of color, and a few white peers, to share stories of their experiences with racism and prejudice in our school and community.
Probably the biggest moment of the year for our club was our meeting with several district-level administrators. Last year our assistant superintendent created a district-wide Equity Team, composed of teachers and administrators from all grade levels, to explore issues of equity within the district. I was able to arrange for a small group from the Equity Team to come to one of our Social Justice Club meetings to hear first-hand from our students what it’s like to be a student of color in our district and community. An Asian girl told how a fellow patron at IHOP commented that she was so surprised that the girl and her mother could speak English. A “friend” of our founder, Lauren, made a reference at lunch to Lauren being a cannibal. (I don’t remember the exact details, but it was in a context such that the comment was clearly a reference to the fact that Lauren is Black.) Another Asian girl talked about how painful it was to hear racial jokes in the hallway that would have been unthinkable at her previous, more racially-diverse school. The stories were difficult to hear, but I was also awed by the strength of my students, and it was a tremendous learning opportunity for the administrators.
Our club has three big challenges next year. First, we need new leadership, as Lauren has graduated. Fortunately, we have some strong incoming juniors who should be up to the task. Second, we need to get more boys involved with our club. Our membership is almost exclusively female, though Lauren’s younger brother did consistently attend our last few meetings of the year. We are, of course, open to any students joining us, but it would be nice to get some of the Black males off the basketball court behind the school and into our club meetings. Finally, we need to better define ourselves as a club. How will we present ourselves in the school? What actions will we take? How much controversy are we willing to engender for the sake of creating a more equitable environment within our district?
These are difficult questions. I hope that we can find answers that allow us to lead our fellow students, teachers, and administrators to a place where all students feel welcome and supported.