1. the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.
Brene’ Brown has probably helped more people deal with their guilt and shame than anybody. I’m grateful to her. She’s helped me a lot too. But there is this one thing that I just can’t stop beating myself up about: it was how I, as a white teacher, acted and taught and felt when I worked in an all-black middle school.
I was a very new teacher, and I did what a lot of new teachers do – they teach exactly like they were taught. But that didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for my students. I couldn’t get through. I remember looking across the school campus thinking, “It’s like the kids come to school doused with gasoline waiting for someone to light a match, and someone always does.” There were fights every day. Outbursts and defiance in the classroom. Refusals to engage with learning. And I cried all the way home every night, knowing I was failing terribly. I started to resent my students for my own failure. Black teachers in the school told students, “Don’t let the white teachers steal your education.” I was angry with them even though I didn’t know what that meant.
I refer to this time in my life as when “I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin.’”
The biggest nothin’ I knew nothin’ about was white privilege. I mean, I was a liberal – one of the good ones, right? I hadn’t yet discovered I was white and what whiteness meant. So of course I couldn’t figure out why so many of my students called me a racist when I was doing everything I could (at that time) to teach them.
In 2010, shortly after I started graduate school, I read a textbook about teachers dealing with racism in their schools, and that’s when I learned that I was white – and NOT one of the good ones. I cried for three weeks as I processed how much harm I caused my students of color because I was blinded by whiteness and racism. I started reading books. I started learning. I started trying to figure out what I could do with my white skin that would cause no further harm or oppression, or maybe even do some good in the world. I’ve been on that journey since 2009 – ten years now.
In that 10 years, I’ve not only learned about anti-racism and anti-oppression, implicit bias, and culturally responsive teaching, I’ve also learned about restorative justice. At the heart of restorative justice is accountability and harm reparation, which means that I am accountable to the students I harmed with my racism. I need to make things right. But that was 13 years ago! How can I even say I’m sorry when I don’t know where they are? And worse than that, am I even worthy of redemption? For 10 years, I’ve been working with restorative justice in hopes that maybe someday, I can clear my debt with that group of young people. In my book, I share a little about my journey of redemption. But even writing a book on restorative schools didn’t bring me peace.
Then one morning, I received this email:
Hello, my name is Kenisha Vance and I think you were my English teacher at Marcus B. West Middle School. That would’ve been the year of approximately 2006 or 2007. I was reaching out to verify if that was indeed you.
My heart stopped. I went right to paranoia. Was this student hunting me down to tell me what a shit I was and how badly I ruined her life? But then her name started ringing a bell, and I pictured who I thought this woman might have been back then. I wrote right back:
Kenisha - I’m trying to picture you and I think I know who you are! I was your social studies teacher. Miss Reed taught English:) How are you? I hope you are well. We are all much older than we were then, eh?
Kenisha responded a few moments later. I held my breath.
Wow all this time I thought you were my English teacher. All is well, I am currently receiving my Masters of Social Work from XYU. I am reaching out to let you know how much you’ve impacted my life since then. I never forgot about the lessons you taught me and I still have the small painting you gave me. It meant a lot because back then I did not have many people in my life who uplifted me. Thank you for that.
My tears just started flowing. I remembered Kenisha. She was indeed a special student. One time during the standardized test I was proctoring, she totally melted down. She slammed her pencil and yelled, “I can’t do this math! I’m going to fail!” and she started to cry. I knew it was just the pressure of this stupid test she was feeling – Kenisha could do math just fine. So I stood beside her and said, “You can do this. Just take some deep breaths and a minute to gather yourself. You know you know how to do those math problems.” She pulled it together and kept going. This girl had perseverance and resilience!!
Still, I wanted to make sure I had the right person in mind. I responded:
Wow. Ok now I’m really curious!
Were you the student I said was "college material" and spoke to your grandmother about making sure you go to college? And take a pic of the painting and send to me.
I went back in time to the day I said, “Kenisha, you’re college material.” And she said, “What’s college material?” And I said “You’ve got what it takes to make it in college and I want you to just plan on going – whatever it takes.” That afternoon, I called her grandmother and planted that same seed. I didn’t know their situation at all. I just wanted her grandmother to know that a teacher spied something special and amazing in her granddaughter and hoped they would find a way to send her to college. I continued writing:
I have to be honest with you. I made a lot of mistakes back then. I call it the days when I didn't know nothin’ about nothin’.
Since then, I discovered restorative justice, got my graduate degrees, and am learning constantly....still. I consider my journey with restorative justice one of redemption to try to make up for what I think was tremendous harm I did as a white teacher who just didn't get it. About once a week I think about going back into teaching to do it differently - and better - but I'm not convinced schools would even let me - at least not the schools here in FL where test scores are all that matter.
Your reaching out has touched me in a way you have no idea - I'm crying my guts out. You stood out - and I could support you - but I failed to do that with most of the other students. I am so happy I had a positive impact on ONE person at MBW.
So I'd like to send you one more thing - my book - called Creating Restorative Schools. I think as a social worker you'd appreciate the lessons in the book - and the call for more just and equitable schools. This is the work I'm trying to do now, but it's hard and slow because the systems are just so broken. My guess is you are going into social work to also try to help, make a difference.
If you'll send me your address, I'll mail you the book - and I hope our paths will cross again!
I am so proud of you. When you reached out, I was hoping it was to tell me you went to college 😊 Send me a pic of the painting and of you - all grown up!!!
Here is the painting I gave her:
Kenisha wrote back:
So I am not sure if you spoke to grandmother or not but we always spoke about school and traveling. You were the first person to mention Grenada to me and you had us read Anne Frank which meant a lot to me. West was a hard place for a white teacher and although I don’t remember or was too young to understand, I do not recall you being a bad teacher. You impacted me tremendously and I appreciated you. I’m happy to hear that you have done self-reflection and decided to right your wrongs, seeing as many people do not do that.
Along with her address, she sent a picture of herself. I replied:
Would you mind if I wrote a little blog or something about our story? Would not use your real name. And it would be another keepsake for you. I’m going on a short writing retreat next week in a very special and spiritual place and I think it would bring some healing to me to write this out.
She said, “I don’t mind at all.”
It’s still hard for me to say whether Kenisha’s words have given me the redemption I’ve been seeking. Ultimately, I need to forgive myself, and that’s not something I am very good at. But she helped move me along in my journey. In fact, I’d say she moved me miles down the road.
I remember being in my 20s, about the same age Kenisha is now, and I wrote letters to the teachers who impacted me too. Teachers do what they can in a short time, and then just hope they made a difference. Today, teachers have so many more tools at their disposal than I did, and that the teachers who taught me did: trauma-informed restorative practices, mindfulness, chair yoga, culturally responsive teaching, a more inclusive curriculum, professional development on racial equity, Black Lives Matter, presidents and presidential candidates of color and female…But even without these initiatives and people, teachers have always had one tool in their toolbox that mattered more than anything else: CARING.
Did I care about my students? More than anything. Did it always come out the right way? No. Not even close. But through all that knowing nothin’ about nothin’, the care I showed Kenisha made a difference. In one email exchange, I went from being the white teacher who screwed kids up to being the one teacher that made a difference in Kenisha’s life. I think she paid off a chunk of my debt. And now I have her smile to remind me of the impact she’s had on me, like she has that painting to remind her of the impact I had on her. Thank you Kenisha.
I am so happy that you are in this place where you can look back on things and reflect. I am very much aware of my blackness and racism in the school system and outside of the school system and it is a very touchy subject but you do so with such grace and honesty which is very important. Know that you did the best you could in a very hard situation. MBW was a place where not only white teachers were being disrespected but so were black teachers, and the vast majority of those kids there were not being pushed to be all they could be. We were all in a lose-lose situation. All you can do is continue to learn but give yourself credit for even trying to improve yourself. There are so many people out there who do not care and there are still teachers out there who are discouraging their black students and doing harm who aren’t conscious enough to stop it, but you did and that means something. You impacted my life in such a huge way. You and one other teacher impacted my life and the funny thing is you both are white! Two white women impacted my life and made me believe in myself. I will always be grateful to you and her for all the care that you gave me. That was you back then. I’m happy God put it in my heart to send you that email because I truly see that you needed it just as I needed you back then.