By ANTHONY CASTRO
The recent weeks of protests against police brutality make me reflect on my job as a teacher working with young kids. I’ve been thinking about one particular school day last year. My third grade students had been grappling with the idea of “How do people improve their communities?” We’d spent time learning about people like Cesar Chavez, Ruby Bridges, Judy Heumann and Lois Marie Gibbs; people who fought for justice.
One morning, we read a quote from Emerson, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
“What do you think it means,” I asked. Hands popped up. “ Luz?” “It means, for like, Black people who have faced unfair laws to not keep having to follow those laws, but instead find ways to change those laws. Then have other people join them so that they don’t go through the same.”
Nancy chimed in, “It’s not just for Black people, it’s like Cesar Chavez and Judy Heumann. People shouldn’t just do the same things all the time if things are unfair. They should work to make changes even if it’s a risk and then have other people fight with them so that things change.”
My students who light up about Harry Potter, Fortnite and slime, made the case: people have to advocate for justice. What used to be a memory of pride has turned into anxiety. My kids want to make their communities a better place, and they’ll fight for it. My kids are witnessing a global pandemic that’s disproportionately impacting communities of color. They’re living through global protests against police brutality. This is their world and they want to make it better.
But now I worry. What if they’re in a protest? What if the police become agitated? What if they get hurt?
I’m grappling with these questions. But there is one question that I feel with urgency. My students talked about the risks in changing unfair laws. How do I stand as their teacher to minimize that risk? I give them the best education possible. I make space to talk about race in the classroom. I work with my colleagues to advocate for anti-racist work across the school.
As a light-skinned Latino, I have anxiety when race comes up in the classroom, or anywhere. My breathing becomes irregular, and I consciously have to regulate it. I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing. I’m still on my journey of discovering what anti-racism looks like.
But I’m more afraid now of my kids living with violence because of my silence. I want them to know that if they’re struggling with something they’ve seen on the news, or they’re struggling with something they’re living through, I will struggle with them.
There are resources around us to engage students as anti-racist educators. We need to challenge ourselves to use them. We also can’t do it alone. I felt overwhelmed when I tried to do it, but when I realized that my colleagues were feeling the same way we started working together. We’re planning for next year: we’re sharing books, videos, lessons. We are committed to addressing the systemic injustices in our country alongside our kids.
I said goodbye to my kids on Zoom not having seen each other since the school closures began in March. But my work as an educator didn’t end on Zoom. It continues as I prepare for whatever happens in the fall. It will continue next school year as I try my best to let every student who walks through my classroom know: “I have your back.”
Anthony Castro teaches third grade at Momentous School in Dallas. He is a Teach Plus DFW Senior Policy Fellow.