As a teacher, I firmly believe that personal interest plays an important role in learning and can make or break an experience. I am quick to talk about the things that interest me – race, identity, Mexico, language – because I am a better teacher when I am interested in my subject matter. However, I remind myself that my students’ interests might overlap with mine but are going to go beyond mine, and that they are the reason I am teaching every day, so that means tapping in to what is relevant to them. The person who taught me this was Dr. Pat Austin, an education professor at the University of New Orleans, and an expert on all things reading and teaching. At some point in my recent teaching career, she put a book in my hands that I was both excited and not excited to read: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The fact that it was a young adult novel – not my favorite genre – made me not excited. That it was about police brutality and a book that was becoming very popular among teenagers made me very excited. Fortunately, I put aside my hesitancy to live in the head of a teenager for 400 pages, and I read the book.
I couldn’t put it down.
I couldn’t stop talking about it.
I couldn’t stop recommending it to anyone who would listen.
Recently, the book was made into a movie, and I was faced with the most challenging question true readers often face: how will the book compare to the movie? Will the producers do the story justice? Will the characters ring true to themselves? Will the plot be the same, or will it be adjusted to better fit the screen? After watching the movie, I then held an opinion that I am still afraid to speak out loud: maybe, just maybe, the movie isn’t only good, but better than the book.
Whether one is better than the other isn’t really the question at hand. Comparing two mediums doesn’t always work, simply because they will always tell stories differently. The fact is that now I can’t stop recommending the movie just as much as I have recommended the book. Talking to a math teacher about the importance of our students having positive African-American male role models, I brought up the movie – “Watch it with your kids,” I said. Mapping out the semester with my co-teacher, I rambled on and on about the movie, and then asked, “Where can we fit it into the curriculum?”
On the one hand, the topics of racism and police brutality are more than relevant to my students. On the other hand, I don’t want to exhaust a topic simply because it interests me; as a teacher, I want to make sure that I am tuning in to their own needs. That said, the conversation of race looks a little different for a 17-year-old person of color going to a public high school in Metairie, Louisiana, than it does for a 31-year-old teacher whose father was a junior in high school before his school was integrated.
Many of my discussions with people my age or older about police brutality involve my making a case that it even exists, that racial profiling is a thing, that people of color are unfairly targeted while white privilege allows for others to live in peace, whether guilty or innocent. For my kids, racial profiling is a reality. They are the ones who are stopped in a department store to have their bags checked while others walk freely out the door. They are the ones who are seen as a statistic and not an individual. They are the ones who walk to school through a neighborhood of women who hold their purses a little closer when spotting someone in a hoodie. Promoting The Hate U Give with my kids is an easy sell because it’s about them. They look down on the page of a book that tells the story of a young black man shot for holding a hairbrush, and they can relate. Whether or not they or someone they know has been a victim of racial profiling or police brutality, they can certainly relate to the protagonist, Starr, sitting in the passenger seat of the car, hands on the dashboard, yelling at her best friend to do the same. Starr, a 16-year-old black female, has been taught by her dad to always, always, always keep her hands visible when in the presence of a police officer. Starr, who isn’t allowed to be comfortable in her own skin. Starr, who must maintain a mixture of respect and distrust for authority figures to survive. Starr, who lives in a society full of assumptions about what her future will hold. Starr, who lost not one but two of her childhood best friends to senseless acts of gun violence.
I’m not here to argue for the relevancy of the book for students. It is a #1 New York Times Bestseller, and has won several awards. I had to buy extra copies for my classroom library just to keep up with the demand of kids who wanted to read it during our self-selection reading unit last semester. Kids are reading it, and they are loving it. I would like to defend the relevancy of this book/movie before a crowd of doubters, the ones who don’t typically read/watch something flagged “young adult,” the skeptic who does not buy into the idea of police brutality or who thinks racial profiling is just a necessary tool for law enforcement. Suspend your disbelief for just a moment, and let’s say that it did happen the way Angie Thomas says it did – let’s just assume for a moment that a young black male was shot by a white police officer because that officer mistook a hairbrush for a firearm. Allow yourself to be invited into this narrative, and let this story ask you the hard questions.
What do you do when you are a powerless witness to an injustice?
How do you process the grief of losing your best friend?
What is the balance between accepting the person you have always been and embracing the person you are becoming?
What happens when an important role model in your life represents everything you were taught to be afraid of?
As parents, do you teach your kids to fight injustice or escape it? At what cost?
How do you manage a friendship with someone whose value system is so different from your own?
Do you – a young, seemingly insignificant individual – have a voice?
If you do have a voice, how should you use it?