Stephanie Jones, a former Atlanta Public School teacher, is a graduate student in education at the University of Georgia. This is her first essay for the Get Schooled blog
By Stephanie P. Jones
I never learned anything about the Emmett Till case when I was in school. I don’t blame my teacher for not telling me this story.
Teachers, under pressure to perform, may have had to push historical moments like these into corners for us to find out about later. That later came one afternoon.
When my mother’s Jet magazines came in the mail, I often flipped through them without much regard, only stopping at the album sales for the week or the announcements of black marriages and anniversaries. I first saw Emmett Till’s face within the pages of that magazine.
There was no picture of Emmett as he looked as a boy, but rather a mangled and swollen pair of lips and two irregular spaces where the eyes should be. I quickly turned the page and I never saw the picture again. The picture became lost somewhere in my memory and I lived uninterrupted from that moment on.
Until I went to Mississippi.
Through the National Endowment for the Humanities, teachers from all over the United States have the opportunity to gain expert knowledge about a myriad of subjects such as history, the arts, and literature.
Delta State University created “The Most Southern Place on Earth” program and I was chosen to participate in a cultural exploration of the delta region of Mississippi. I learned about the history of blues music and the importance of Dockery Farms. I learned about the Great Flood of the Mississippi river and how agriculture sustained the people of this region. And, I learned about Emmett Till.
When our guest speakers presented information about Emmett Till, my laptop savvy-teacher friends busied themselves by pulling up pictures of his dismembered face and using Google maps to find the exact location of Money, Mississippi. I couldn’t stay busy during this time, playing faux detective to this narrative of Emmett’s kidnapping and torture.
To stay busy, to stay wrapped up in the details, did not acknowledge the fact that as teachers, we need to pause for a moment. Emmett Till was a person. His murder happened. It was real.
The lives of Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, even though their deaths occurred almost 60 years apart, share shocking similarities. How is it that a trip to the store can cost a Black male his life? What structures are in place, whether visible or not, that make brown skin a sign of suspicion? The Georgia Performance Standards and the Common Core Standards may not tell a teacher to address the Emmett Till case specifically but, if we choose to push that particular part of history in the corner, we won’t teach about Trayvon Martin either.
Those pivotal moments are regulated to the index of a textbook and students won’t get the opportunity to dialogue about events that affect them. Our students could be next Trayvon Martin or the next George Zimmerman.
I am willing to get a lower grade on my evaluation because students are talking about these two cases rather than in the “language of the standard.” I am willing to sacrifice a percentage point on End of Course test scores in lieu of having a dialogue about Emmett, Trayvon, and Zimmerman.
Every single story matters. Teachers, let’s not get caught up in what is common. Let’s talk about what is relevant. Let’s talk about how these things get started and how they keep going.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog