Jackson: Thinking About Trayvon

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(Host) Like countless other Americans of all races, commentator and Burlington High School English teacher Reuben Jackson has been watching the nationwide protests that have followed the shooting of Trayvon Martin. What he didn’t anticipate was a searing reintroduction to his own racial pain and anger.

(Jackson) It was the Friday before the downtown Burlington rally in support of Trayvon Martin, the 17 year old African American murdered on his way home from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida. Three minutes before the bell rang, one of my students asked if I would be attending. "Attending what?" I responded, as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. I must have sounded like a student sidestepping an instructor’s request for last night’s homework.

After hemming and hawing, and a long silence, I uttered a muted "Maybe." The aforementioned student was clearly surprised to see his teacher so withdrawn – so desperate to change the subject. I was, too. In a way.

I’m no psychologist, but I didn’t need to be one to know that Trayvon Martin’s death had pushed more than a few of my cultural and historical buttons. When I first heard the details of the shooting, I was immediately returned to my parents’ living room in my hometown, Washington, D.C. I was in third grade, but my Dad didn’t care. He proceeded to give me what is known as "the talk"- the painful but necessary rules of survival African American parents provide their male children before sending them out into an often hostile environment. That was in 1963.

But the thought that these survival skills, like racism itself – and yes, there is bigotry in Vermont – still had a pulse depressed me as much as Trayvon’s murder angered me. I thought about students who’d shared painful, all too familiar stories about encounters with the police. Teachers have a duty to impart knowledge, but I wouldn’t wish these teachable moments on anyone.

After a night or two of fitful sleep. I did decide to join the crowd assembled in front of Burlington City Hall. I was glad to see so many students and parents. And, to my surprise, I got up and spoke. Surprisingly, the anecdote describing the day my father armed me with survival skills came easily to me – as did my closing plea for honest, straightforward conversations about race.

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