She taught Education. She had been asked a reasonable question: what should they do when confronted with a racist student? How should they protect the student under attack? What was the best discipline for the student doing the attacking? She understood their impulse. Her own reaction as a young teacher back in the 90’s was to come down hard. But then she told her students about him.
He was a handsome boy; bright, very engaged. He sat right near the front. It had been a week since he’d been to class. The parents said they would ensure he came, but still no Cameron. She was on her way home when she finally spotted him.
He was sitting at a coffee shop table with a fruit drink, reading a comic book. He didn’t know what to do when she just sat down across from him with her coffee and a big friendly smile on her face. “Hi Cameron!” He froze like a deer in the headlights, caught off guard by her friendly approach. “Don’t worry. You’re not in trouble. I know what the problem is. Everything is going to be fine now. You’re safe.” He was baffled.
“Safe from who?”
“From whoever is bullying you.” His eyes rolled a bit. He seemed less nervous. It was like he was mocking her efforts. “It’s okay Cameron. You’re not weak for needing help. We have to stand up to racism together. Just tell me who the student is and I promise, they’ll be disciplined harshly. I’m pretty sure I already know who it is anyway.”
“Oh yeah? And who’s that?” he finally said.
“It’s Nathan, isn’t it.” He just laughed her off like a fool. “It’s not funny Cameron. This this is a serious issue. If it’s bad enough he’ll be kicked out of school.”
“Well then I guess you’ve already done your job then, haven’t you?” he offered. Now she was confused and he now felt more confident.
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about me. I’ve already left. You don’t need to kick me out.” She stared back at him, truly lost and confused and he knew it. He let her stew while he built up his courage. He loved her as a teacher, but it was time. Finally, he stepped forward to offer his coup de grâce. “I’m the racist Ms. Simms. I’m the bad guy in this story.”
“Cameron I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“At least you got that part right.” She looked at him imploringly. He was a good student. She wanted to be a good teacher. But he almost seemed angered by her compassion. “I’m from South Africa Ms. Simms.” He paused. “I’m white.” She was still lost.
He spun the comic around and pointed to a character. “I’m the villain. I’m the bad guy.” She looked at him confused. “I had dogs back home that were trained to attack black people Ms. Simms. The person you want to kick out of school isn’t Nathan, it’s me.”
It was like someone flipped her world upside down. She started a hundred thoughts and finished none. He was South African. He was white. And South Africa was under sanctions for Apartheid. “But…” all of her preconceptions were smashing into what he’d said, and what she knew. “Cameron how could that be? Just because you lived in South Africa, that doesn’t automatically make you a racist.”
“Yes it does Ms. Simms. It does. Because I was. I was a racist. Do you understand? My friends and I beat black people.” She reacted as though he struck her. She flinched, and it made him feel more confident. “That’s right. I sicked my dogs on black people. They bit them. Badly. And I felt nothing. They were animals. I cared more about my dogs.”
She sat there feeling like someone had punched her in the stomach. She had no way to process what he was saying and he knew it, so he doubled down. “You’re from here, Canada. You talk to black students the same way you talk to white students, and Chinese students, and Native students. You’re a Canadian. You were taught to respect these people. I was taught to have dogs. Dogs that were trained to attack black people. And I was happy to use them.”
“But you’re not that person now…” she was almost begging him to confirm it. She couldn’t reconcile the nice kid she knew and the stories he was telling her.
“When you grow up and everyone around you thinks a certain way, you don’t even notice it. I was in Canada for months before I saw a white person treat a black person with respect. I’d never seen it before in my life. I thought he was crazy, or weak. My father thought he was both.”
“Do you still feel that way? Do you still want to attack black people?” Now he was uncomfortable. He didn’t. Canada had rubbed off on him in a year. He wasn’t friends with any coloured people, but he knew people he liked that were. He was going through his own conflicts. He couldn’t tell her how he felt because he didn’t know either. “How could you believe such a thing?” she asked.
“You thought I was a nice kid, right? You believed that. You took the little bit you knew and you told yourself a story about me and you believed it. So that’s who I was. I was who you thought I was. Well, the same for me. Everyone around me believed black people were animals, so I thought so too. I didn’t even know there was an option until I moved here.”
“But you’re so compassionate Cameron. I’ve seen you be kind. It’s why I like you.”
“It’s just guilt. I’ve done some very bad things.” That seemed to upset him.
“But you didn’t know better.”
“That’s no excuse. You said it yourself.”
She had. She now knew that had been a mistake. It had never occurred to her that she might not be able to recognise the racists. Her judgment felt too easy now, too casual. Now she felt like the bully. “I’ve made a mistake Cameron. I’m sorry. You’re making me realise that now. I’d never thought of the racist as a victim too.”
“A victim of who? We had all of the power.”
“I don’t mean the power. I mean the… awareness. The understanding. You had no way of knowing that you were participating in racism. I see that now. If everyone around you does it, then it’s normal. You’re making me realise now that I grew up in a family that had some pretty harsh ideas about Indians–about Natives–and I’m… maybe I’m not as good a teacher as I thought.”
“You’re fine Ms. Simms. You’re one of the most popular teachers in the school. The problem isn’t you. It’s me.”
Now she was feeling stronger. “No, it isn’t. The problem is that I didn’t have a discussion about racism, I just called one side good and the other side bad and that was it. I didn’t leave you any room. I didn’t leave a space for you and that’s my fault. That’s my failing. I not only let you down as a teacher, I let that whole class down and I see that now. I need your help Cameron.”
“I want you to teach us Cameron.” He seemed shocked. “I mean it. You’re right. I don’t know what I’m talking about. Just like you I’ve never even questioned my biases until now. I’m no better than you and you’re no worse than me. The problem here isn’t you. The problem is a lack of understanding. You can help us with that. Racism is subtle here in Canada. We like to think we have none, and yet I displayed some to you. I was intolerant of you. We have to fix that. This class can be better and it will be better if you explain it to us. We need to know why you had those dogs. We need to find our own versions of those dogs. Will you help me? Will you help us?”
She seemed serious. He liked her. And he liked school. He really wanted to be more comfortable with his black classmates but he had no idea where to start. Maybe this was his chance.
“Please Cameron. I mean it. I really need your help with this.” He looked at her a long time. He wanted so badly to believe he was a good person. He so badly wanted her forgiveness. He wanted all black people’s forgiveness. He started to cry. I mean cry. It started as tears but soon he was sobbing. She went around the table and put her arm around while he sobbed.
After a while someone appeared next to them. It was Robert. He was a sensitive boy. He’d been a refugee from Somalia. He was black. “Are you okay Cameron?” he asked. Cameron looked up and started to cry even harder when he saw who it was. Robert sat down across from him and took his hands his own. “It’s okay.”
Cameron looked at him through his tears. He felt so incredibly bad that he started a new jag of tears. He squeezed Robert’s hands. “Robert will you help me?”
“Of course I will.” He pulled Cameron up, into an embrace. He held him closely as Cameron bawled on his shoulder. People started watching them but they didn’t care. This was the beginning of it getting better.
When she looked up at her university class she was crying. They were too. Even the harshest, toughest boys. She took a moment to gather herself before speaking. “If I teach you anything in this class I’d like it to be this: you will learn more from your students than you can ever hope to teach them. So remember that when you’re at the front of your classes. Remember to never, ever, stop being a student too. Because in all of my years of teaching, no one ever made me a better teacher than Cameron and Robert did. Your job isn’t to police what’s good or bad or right or wrong. Your job is to build understanding. Do that, and you’ll have done the most important kind of teaching there is.”
And with that the bell rang.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.