Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words, Harper SanFrancisco, 2004, p. 383.
Erika at The Margins posted this quote a few weeks ago and I liked it because it is Buechner and I always like Buechner, but I mostly glossed over it because it didn't seem relevent.
It seems relevent now.
When I taught high school, only one kid ever made me cry in front of the class. It was my first year. I’ll call him Peter. My first impulse is to tell you, “He was a good kid.” But that’s a lie by anyone’s standards. Peter was always in trouble: with me, with the deans, with the law. He was disrespectful and disobedient. We fought often. I always won. I’d yell or take him out in the hallway or ask nicely or send him to the dean or tease him or use a stern voice make him stand facing the corner or offer him bribes or reason with him. He wanted me to win but he wanted me to earn it. He wanted me to win because that meant that for 50 minutes, he didn’t have to be the strongest person in his life. For 50 minutes, he could relax and let me be in charge. For 50 minutes, he could feel safe. He could feel safe because I did the exact same thing with the other 29 kids in the class. I always won, which means that in his eyes, I was trustworthy. I promised to maintain order and I did. So, as the year progressed, Peter and I fought less. His emotions didn’t need me to prove that I was strong enough to protect him quite so often. We became much more friendly with each other. Both of us cracked more jokes. We relaxed our guard.
What I didn’t realize when I was a 21-year-old white female teacher was that a 15-year-old black male teenager never trusts completely. He never forgets the defense mechanisms that he’s dropped temporarily. He might be friendly but he is never a friend.
The world screws black men from a very early age. The statistics are revealing. Arloa summarizes some of them this way:
African American men are in deep trouble. In the city of Chicago only 35% of them graduate from high school. Of the few who enter college, only 22% of them actually graduate. A recent study indicates that most of those who do graduate from college are from countries outside of the US. Among those who have dropped out of high school, in 2004, 72% were unemployed and 21% were incarcerated. By their mid-thirties six out of ten high school dropouts have a prison record. This cradle to prison to death pipeline is a disaster that must be stopped.
No one chooses that life. He can only defend himself from it.
So when something traumatic happened in the part of Peter’s life that was outside the 50 safe minutes in my classroom, I would have been terribly naïve to believe that it would stay outside of my classroom. It turns out that I was terribly naïve.
When Johnny redirects the feelings he has about Carla over to Elizabeth, this is called transference. There are a variety of reason that this happens. Often, it is because Elizabeth reminds Johnny of Carla. Additionally, usually Johnny can’t express the feelings he has to Carla and so it is safer to express them to Elizabeth.
Black men can easily build up anger at the way the world treats them. But who can they be angry at? All of us know how much better we feel once we’ve finally blown up and yelled at someone who hurt us. There is a sweet release of all those fight-or-flight chemicals and tension in our bodies. So, who does a black man get to yell at? As teenagers, they face all sorts of repercussions for expressing their anger to their parents, grandparents, deans, police officers, bosses. The get punished, they get hit, they get suspended, they get insulted, they get arrested, they get suspended, they get fired. So, they learn to keep quiet. To keep it in. Not to trust because to trust is to create holes in the walls of their defenses. It lets other people in but also creates the potential to let their anger out.
When Peter transferred his anger at whatever injustice (and I’m certain his anger was valid) had been dealt to him over to me, it caught me by surprise. My position of authority was enough to make me represent all authority to Peter. Maybe his persecutor was also white or female. However it happened, I became Elizabeth in place of Ricky’s Carla. This happened because the 50 minutes that Peter spent in my classroom were safe, not because I had really hurt him in any way. If I had not been safe, he would not have struck out at me. He would have feared the repercussions too much.
I cannot remember the dispute; it was probably minor. But because we had built up trust for each other over time, his personal attack against me felt like a betrayal of that trust. And I cried there in front of all those other kids for whom I needed to be strong. He was disgusted with me for crying and accused me of trying to manipulate him. He was so hurt that there was no room in him for empathy. Only self-defense.
What strikes me the most about this memory is how out-of-control Peter seemed as he yelled at me and ultimately walked out of class. His eyes looked panicked as he said terrible things to me, as if his mouth and his body were communicating without his permission. His body was tense to the point of shuddering. Do you remember feeling like this when you were a teenager? Knowing while you were overreacting that it was a bad idea but being unable to stop? Extrapolate on that experience of dread and sorrow and anxiety to try to imagine being a black teenager yelling at his white teacher.
I’m telling you about Peter because twice now, a man that I interact with has made me cry because the similar betrayal of our trust and friendliness took me by surprise. Seemingly out of nowhere, he has lost his temper with me, which is unusual for him. Each time he has accused, “You and everybody else . . .”
Learning from my experience with Peter and from research into the stories of others, I never fancied that we were friends. That kind of racial reconcilitaion takes years. He is African American and working class. He grew up and lived much of his early adult life on both the west side and the south side of Chicago. His formal education is minimal. He lives a clean life now but has not always done so. Therefore, his survival education is maximum. He works a job in manual labor. We are not as different as two Americans can get, but we're definitely starting from opposite ends of the friendship ballroom as we walk toward one another. Certain experiences did cause me to believe that we were at least walking toward one another, though.
On Wednesday, after his initial outbreak, I tried to have a conversation with him about the change in our relationship. His hurt, transference of anger and lack of control in that conversation felt exactly like Peter’s. I kept trying to assure him that I would never do the things he named, that I never had, that I was concerned because he was a good man and doesn’t normally behave this way. He did not let me finish one conciliatory sentence in the entire conversation, angrily protesting things that he thought I was going to say. He never actually heard that I wasn’t saying the things he was protesting against. He was so hurt that there was no room in him for empathy. Only self-defense.
It was unexpected, it hurt and I cried. But I tried desperately to communicate that whatever I had done wrong, I was willing to try to fix, sometime in the future, whenever he was ready.
I know that I didn’t do anything terrible to my co-worker. My appeals to be allowed to fix what was wrong were not necessarily for myself. I believe that when Christ commands me to love and to heal, he is commanding me to do whatever is necessary when someone else is hurting. “Whatever is necessary” can mean taking responsibility for the actions of someone else and apologizing on their behalf.
There is an internal sense of protest that goes up in white folks at this idea. It is the debate about reparations paid for slavery translated into my life. Examine yourself and your response to my last paragraph. It true, isn’t it? You want to say to me, “Rebecca, you didn’t do anything wrong. He’s just mad about something else. There’s nothing you can do.” Maybe it’s because you know me and love me and don’t want me to be hurt. Maybe it’s a deeper sense of fair and unfair that it offended. Maybe it’s residual sense of racial dominance that objects. I think all three of those motivations are at force inside of me.
But people don’t heal until their hurts have been soothed. Until the boo-boo is kissed, regardless of what caused the boo-boo, the child remains upset. If I am to take the commandment to love others as I have been loved seriously, I have to offer to take someone’s anger at someone else and say, “I’m sorry that I hurt you that much,” even when I didn’t. Because isn’t that what Christ did? Isn’t that the “as I have been loved” part of the commandment?
It has almost become a meaningless phrase in racial reconciliation: “It’s messy.” What does that mean?
Peter was never the same after the day he exploded at me in class. I stood at the door and welcomed each kid fresh every morning, regardless of what happened the day before and I did this for Peter whever he showed up for the rest of the year. But he showed up less frequently after that and he failed the class, dropping out of school the next year. There was no Michelle Pfeiffer/Hillary Swank moment when that dual vulnerability caused him to turn around and suddenly decide to be successful.
I don’t know what will happen with my acquaintance. I don’t know how much I can push to remain part of his life without being paternalistic and making him feel burdened with my white guilt. I don’t know that my own brokenness hasn’t already caused irreparable damage. Our relationship may go Peter’s way, where I can only hope that my behavior my part of a string of experiences that God is using to pull him closer wholeness. It may not.
But Buechner says that my tears are telling me secrets about who I am and where I should go next. I think they are telling me to keep going toward racial reconciliation. Situations like what happened on Wednesday will never stopp occurring if I don't.
I do not think that this world will be made any better if I pretend like this isn’t my problem. My tears tell me that it is. As Jerry Garcia says, “Someone has to do something and it’s just terribly pathetic that it has to be us.”
I have begun to believe that even if people can’t believe that Christ was divine, they can at least find meaning and purpose and redemption in believing that anyone would be capable of sacrificing himself or herself for others like Christ did. If someone like Jesus could do it, so can any of us. The stories are all around us, like Liviu Librescu, a profefssor at Virginia Tech, who wasn’t Christian. And if we are capable of that kind of love for others, we must be worth the love of others.
Ain’t that good news? Lord, ain’t that news?