Rosa Atkins grew up in a small town in southern Virginia during the Civil Rights era. She recalls being a young student during those years, and how important her teachers’ composure was. “When I think about the horrors of that time,” says Atkins, now the superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, “I remember the smiles of my teachers, their kind words, and how much that reassured me.”
Atkins has had to call on those memories to prepare for the new school year, which began on Wednesday morning, just 11 days after white supremacists assembled in this college town to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. One is accused of killing Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others when he rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. “The key to being successful with our students,” says Atkins, “is to allow the teachers to get their thoughts and feelings out so that on the first day of school, they won’t react emotionally.”
Before the city’s teachers can help their students, they need to process the events themselves. One school, says Atkins, brought in counselors to meet with teachers; many of them broke down in tears when discussing the violence.
An emotional welcome-back convocation last week gave Charlottesville educators, who teach a student body that is almost 50 percent of color, the chance to process the events together. After a speech by Atkins, teachers sang “Lean on Me” and other songs, and waved glow sticks. “Everyone was there for each other,” says Jenn Horne, an English teacher at Charlottesville High School. “Every school was represented, and there were hundreds of teachers and administrators.”
Atkins is asking teachers to pay close attention to the age of their students, as well as to how much exposure they may or may not have had to the violence. A few Charlottesville High School students were physically injured in the protests—one girl’s arm was broken—but other, younger kids may have had little or no knowledge of the clashes and will be hearing about them for the first time from classmates.
“The variance and exposure issue comes more into play at the elementary school level,” says Atkins, noting that parents of younger children are more likely to have completely shielded them from the events. She advises teachers of students who are hearing about the violence for the first time at school to affirm their queries—“That’s an important question you’re asking”—and then suggest a conversation with them individually, at which time the teacher can, depending on a student’s needs, bring in other resources or contact a parent.
Eric Irizarry, the principal of Charlottesville High School and a former middle school principal, says that it’s important to look for unusual behavior in younger students in the aftermath of such events. “High-school students can usually at least ask for help,” he says, “while younger students sometimes can’t express what they’re feeling.”
Nicole Carter, Jenn Horne’s fellow English teacher at Charlottesville High School, says she is prepared to provide emotional support to her students, and to listen. “We need to create a safe space for them to talk,” she says. Horne adds that they’ll also be encouraging active listening. The teachers plan to kick off their classes with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, on the danger of only hearing or reading a single story about another person or country, to encourage such listening.
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English teachers will also teach texts such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Claudia Rankin’s Citizen, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. They’ll particularly focus on the novel The Hate U Give, about a black teen who witnesses a white police officer shoot her unarmed best friend, Khalil. “We thought this would be a good way to tie into everything that’s been happening,” says Carter, “and to help kids see how they can find a voice.”
Charlottesville’s history also presents its educators with material for teaching this moment. The city’s longtime KKK presence and white opposition to desegregation during the Civil Rights era provides a vivid backdrop to this month’s rallies. And the displacement of residents from the black neighborhood of Vinegar Hill in the 1960s, along with persistent gentrification and a dearth of affordable housing, continues to exacerbate inequality between whites and people of color. Carter notes that young people born and raised in Charlottesville are often unaware of this history, both early and recent.
“There’s still a lot of work to do in Charlottesville,” adds Irizarry. “But there are a lot of people who are willing to have the difficult conversations and look for solutions.”
Carter and Horne encourage their students to join these conversations through civic engagement. Horne, for instance, requires them to read the news and then write emails and letters to their representatives about issues that concern them. Says Horne: “We tell them that teenagers actually do have a voice—so don’t be quiet!”