This post is in support of Black Lives Matter’s #EveryBlackGirlMatters open letter to Spring Valley High School students Niya Kenny and Shakara. You can add your signature as a show of support for both girls, as they deal with legal, medical, academic, and emotional fallout from last month’s assault.
When I pick you up from school now, you are either crouching teary-eyed with your back to the other coat-bundled, backpack-saddled children or you are standing next to your favorite teacher’s aide — the one who looks like the all the other women in your life: brown, full-grown, fierce when need be — your tiny hand gift-wrapped in her long fingers and protective palm. You aren’t looking at the door for me anymore, distraught when I don’t arrive before you do when your class is dismissed. But the process still seems to rattle you. All the people, all the noise, the hectic urgency of teachers pulling single-file links of handholding kids toward all the buses that await them outside. The buses have curious names: Lemon, Tangerine, Pineapple. You hear them shouted by teachers. You hear them crackling through intercom speakers. You have never ridden the school bus; all the names mean to you is that children you just played with in your Pre-K classroom are being pulled off in all different directions, taken to places unknown.
I wonder what that’s like for you, as an only child. You’re only with children two hours a day and at the end of those hours, you watch them wrested away. Is learning alongside them the warmest, most thrilling part of your day? Is it lonely to leave? Or are you relieved to be coming home, where you know that, no matter how you express yourself, you will be understood?
When I ask you about your friends, calling each of their names and hoping for something specific and anecdotal, you disclose very little. You were placed in this class with the expectation that you would become a student leader. You’re older than the others and have taken a year of pre-k before. For you, the material and the routines have long been rote. But I wonder if you do lead there. I wonder how often you assert yourself and what you do when you feel disoriented or teased or rushed (if these things happen at all).
There’s so little I can guess about this sliver of life you already live away from me. I have a conference with your teacher this week and I’ll visit your classroom next Wednesday. But I know from our two previous years of experience that those are just wisps of observation, that your interior life and your impressions of your surroundings are largely unknowable.
Right now, it’s just the language. You’re five and everyday, you’re articulating more, but your communication skills are still slow-emerging. Later, in adolescent, the parts of your life you wall off will be intentionally decided. Language won’t be the barrier; your great teenage need for privacy will.
Then, as now, I will need for us to find a way to be an impenetrable team. Too many forces seek to erode black girls’ confidence and school is breeding ground for many of them.
I was sullen and silent and an only child, too. Bright but not necessarily in ways that a public school assessment system could adequately measure. I didn’t exude enough coolness to be emulated or enough confidence to be insulated from bullying or enough aggression to be feared. I relied most on low visibility. If I could blend into a crowd of brown students, I could observe or immerse without being targeted. I could survive.
But nothing is ever failsafe. Back then, student resource officers were just being placed in middle and high schools. Now, they are a mainstay. Back then, I assumed they were there to protect us from outside intrusion. Now, it’s apparent, they’re policing children who look like you, whose parents earn too little to send them elsewhere (like me). Now, black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls. Now, black girls in public schools report experiencing disproportionately high instances of interpersonal violence. And every single day, national news confirms that abuse committed against black women, injustices committed against black women, and assault committed against black women are of little public interest — constant reminders that after you are raised, you are not being released into a world where kindness will be offered easily.
But womanhood is still a star in the middle distance. I have years to prepare you for it, years to deliver you to it. They are years for which we should be prepared. You will need to tell me when something’s wrong. You will need to speak up in class. You will need to defend yourself. You will need me to defend you when that fails. I will need someone more powerful to join us. We will need women. We will need black women. We will need lots of black women.
But in the moment when I am not beside you and you will like war is rushing toward you and no cavalry is coming, you may only need one.
In South Carolina at Spring Valley High, Shakara had Niya. Not her black male teacher. Not any of the other tremulous scared-silent students. When Officer Ben Fields attacked her, one girl cried out on her behalf, a voice raised when Shakara’s own wind had been knocked from her.
When we are fortunate, there is one. May you always have a Niya. May you always have access to a single empathetic staff member. When I can’t be near, may another black woman be my emissary. Look up into the faces of onlookers and find someone willing to flip a table for you. She will probably be black. She will want to keep you safe and see you win.
But for her brave defense of you, she will also face a battle. Niya was manhandled, arrested, and charged with disturbing schools alongside Shakara. We take great risks when we stand between our sisters and the terrors that stalk them. We take those risks, even as we face terrors of our own. Solidarity may be the right choice, but it is never a simple one.
Every black girl deserves to have someone make it. Every black girl who makes it deserves a hedge of support and defense when she does.
You are still so young, but in your own class, you have met your first one. A little girl a bit smaller than yourself with a big, clear voice. She calls out to you from beside her dad, when they’re walking behind us toward the school in the morning. She waits patiently for your timid wave in response. When you are crouching with your back to everyone, she tells you when I’ve come to get you. Yo mommy here! When you’ve had a hard day, she walks up, cranes her neck up the full four feet from her own height to my face. She looks into my eyes to make sure I’m paying attention. Story was sleepy today, she reports.
I thank her. And that night, I tuck you in an hour earlier.