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    He Was Just Like Me

    The honesty of Juice and Jesus come together in a student my fellow teachers were wrong to overlook.

    By Danté Stewart

    November 17, 2021
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    • Elizabeth Nestler

      Thank you!

    • Colleen

      I’m a white woman trying to decide whether to get his book… and this clinched it. Beautiful article. I’ll need to read the whole book and sit and LEARN.

    • Tina harrison

      Thank you, this was a great read. Real talk because there are a lot of black brothers and sisters who are going through this right now. In a selfish and ungrateful world, love still works if we let it!

    Reggie (let’s just call him that) had entered my office at the Christian school where I worked one morning, just as the day was getting started. He was short, slim, his face brown like caramel. His hair was cut in a fade. He wore the blue top and khaki bottoms that was the school uniform. He would always talk to me about the latest Steph Curry highlight that was on Instagram, the latest update in Fortnite, or the girls that he had been thinking about slipping notes to, or ask to play basketball during lunchtime. I would laugh at him because I was reminded of my childish love with Jas, my wife, in college, when I would plan to cross paths with her, or plan to ask her out to the movies, or plan to catch eyes with her as she sang and I played the drums during gospel choir rehearsal. There was something so pure about his desire for love. There was something so young but so honest about the way he thought he was the best-looking dude in the school, better looking than all the other dudes, with the same fade in their heads, and the same blue shirt with heritage academy on the left side of it, and the same khaki bottoms.

    On this otherwise uneventful morning, I could tell that something was bothering him. His face was not adorned with his bright smile, his white teeth glistening, and the way his body would sway side to side, up and down, almost like he was trying to show that he commanded the space. I could tell he was in pain. His mouth didn’t say much, but his body said so much more.

    “Mr. Stew,” he called out to me the way he would when it was time to talk about some real stuff. “Can I holla at you for a second?”

    “Of course,” I said as I made some space at my desk. I would get to school early and try to either work on some essays that I had been thinking about or finish lesson plans that I was working on. This particular morning I was working on a lesson to teach them about Martin Luther King Jr., since MLK Day was coming up. I had taken a look at the previous year’s Bible curriculum and realized that none of the kids were learning about Black people the way we’d learned, none of them were learning about justice the way we’d learned, and none of them were learning about ways Christians were to be loving neighbors and do whatever we could to make the country more loving and more just. So I decided to do what I could to help introduce them to the journey I was taking. I knew I couldn’t teach them just about how to be better Christians; I had to help them learn how to be better humans and better Americans. Sometimes that meant playing a video of a protest and getting their thoughts. Sometimes that meant listening to a sermon and having them talk about it. Sometimes that meant reading and learning about the Bible. Sometimes that meant learning history. And sometimes it meant just being there for them, just to listen and talk about whatever they wanted.

    “That’s faith,” I told him. “Us Black dudes trying to learn how to be honest, find meaning in the story of Jesus, and live in this country.”

    Reggie and I had gotten used to starting random conversations about life, about mommas and daddies, about loss, about sports, about poetry. He began to tell me about something he had done that he knew was going to get him in trouble. I assured him that he was just fine with me. I made sure that he knew I couldn’t save him from whatever he did, but that I could be there to talk with him.

    “Now – ” Reggie gave me that look, like he knew he was in trouble, but he knew he wanted to say something about it. “Mr. Stew, I ain’t meant it like that,” he pleaded. “I didn’t even do anything,” he said. I looked at him. I looked down at my journal.

    “You didn’t?” I asked.

    “Mr. Stew,” he said, “you don’t believe me?”

    When he asked me that, my mind went back to when I’d asked the same question of a teacher at school. “Well, I don’t know yet,” I told him, as I shuffled some papers around. “It’s not about whether I believe you or not. It’s about whether or not you telling the truth to yourself.”

    He looked at me, partly confused, partly about to grab his stuff. “Mr. Stew,” he said, “you always trying to teach us lessons.”

    I agreed. I told him that was my job, that’s what they paid me for, and that’s what put food on my table. “You don’t want to learn?” I asked.

    “Of course,” he told me, his mouth twisting a bit into a smile.

    “Aite then,” I told him. “Learning means listening to lessons. I don’t know the situation, nor do I want to know it, but I will tell you what I think.” We walked toward the door. “I’m not saying I’m right. I’m just saying I been where you been and done learned some things the hard way and learned some things the not-so-hard way.”

    He walked out of my room and went downstairs. “Mr. Stew,” he said to me, looking my way, pulling his backpack more on his back, “you alright with me.”

    I walked out of the room and thought about all the conversations I’d had with teachers where they didn’t have answers, but they’d at least tried to make things all right even if they weren’t.

    I don’t know if it was because I was one of the youngest teachers or the only Black male teacher in the entire school or that I played sports, but there was something about me that Reggie gravitated to. I tried not to assume too much about my students. In so many of the conversations, many of the teachers lamented the poor kids, their poor families, and their poor morals. I knew none of that was true. Complex? Yes. Poor? Not at all.

    There was richness, vibrancy, beauty, untapped potential, unlocked hope, shattered souls wanting to be whole again. From that day on, Reggie and I began to share conversations over meals. We shared conversations in the hallways, after class, on the basketball court, and more. The more he talked to me, the more we found ourselves overlapping things we loved, things we disliked, things we didn’t necessarily understand, things that were just flat-out normal but meaningful.

    He had a lot of questions about God, himself, his parents, his Blackness, his fears, his hopes, his poetry, his friends, how much he hated school uniforms, teachers who singled him out, and missing out on the good lunch. He had gotten tired of lying, tired of running, tired of ducking and dodging, tired of hiding his pain. He was a young man that was part hurt and part angry. I learned that he felt others blamed him too much. He was so afraid of failure, so afraid – lest he become, as teachers would often say, like “those guys” (insert troublemaker, thug, or whatever characterization white people give Black boys to feel better about calling them a n----r). He told stories of painful events that had happened in his life and how those painful events informed how he saw the world.

    The other teachers didn’t see that, though. Instead they warned me about him, called him a troublemaker based on his past report cards.

    But he wasn’t. He was a kid who wanted to feel seen. He wanted things to be all right. He was a Black boy, just like me, trying to learn, trying to get girls, trying to show how he was the best-looking thing walking, trying to run rather than facing problems.

    He was just like me.

    “Mr. Stew,” he asked me one day on the basketball court. “What you think about Juice WRLD?”

    “I don’t know,” I said. “Who is that?”

    “Come on, mannn, Mr. Stew, you don’t know Juice?” he said. He sucked his teeth and laughed at the thought of me not knowing Juice.

    “His music be hitting, no cap,” he told me. “Aite, I’ll listen to him,” I said, as I pulled out my phone and opened up YouTube. “What should I listen to?” I asked.

    “Let’s see.” He paused for a little, his mind going through Juice’s portfolio. “Start with ‘Lucid Dreams,’” he told me.

    “Aite, I will,” I said. “What makes ‘Lucid Dreams’ so good?” I asked.

    He looked at me. He looked down. He looked at me again. “Well, for me, his music is real. He is real about his pain and how he cope. Now, I ain’t saying it’s right the way he does it,” he told me. “But at least he’s real and he’s actually honest.

    “You remember how you told us about Jesus and him crying out in the garden?” he asked, reminding me of a gospel story I’d used in a lesson on honesty, pain, and hope. “You remember how you said we got to be honest to get better?”

    “Yeah, I do.”

    “Well, that’s what Juice and Jesus did . . . they were honest.”

    “Yeah, you right,” I said.

    “You always be making us think, Mr. Stew,” he told me.

    “We got to learn how to live here,” I said as I thought about the space between his Black body, my Black body, the orange basketball, the concrete court. “That’s what Juice was doing.”

    “Yeah, he was. He was a Black dude trying to learn how to live.”

    “That’s faith,” I told him. “Us Black dudes trying to learn how to be honest, find meaning in the story of Jesus, and live in this country.”

    “I feel that, Mr. Stew. No cap.”

    For some reason, the teachers were so hard on him. They would find any little thing to call his momma about or call him out for. Some of the teachers complained about him in the teachers’ meeting. This never sat well with me. The image of White teachers talking about all the trouble a Black kid was giving them just didn’t make my insides feel good. It was like he was in boot camp, rather than in an environment that loved wounded Black girl and boy bodies. I wonder, did he feel it? Did he hate it like I did? Did he struggle to love himself? Did they even know his story? Did they even know him? Did they love him?

    By the time I was ready to have that conversation with the school staff, he was up for expulsion. It was toward the end of the school year. The administration had a meeting with him and his family. There was really nothing I could do, either to get them to care about him more or to save him from what he’d done.

    As the weeks progressed, between the classroom and the basketball court, we had tried to figure out ways to speak about the life of faith together, him talking about the ways he hated going to church, dressing up in oversized suits like me, all the whooping and hollering the preacher did. I promised him that I would get on Fortnite and try it out. He was trying and trying and trying.

    One night, as I was sitting in my study eating some curry that Jas had cooked, listening to John Coltrane and getting ready for the next day’s lesson, my phone rang. “Mr. Stew.” It was Reggie’s mother. “Thank you,” she said.

    “Thank you for what?” I asked.

    “You know he’s been talking about you all the time. He’s been going on and on about the things y’all been talking about.”

    “Yeah, he’s pretty talented,” I said as I told her what she already knew. “Did he show you his poem that he wrote the other day?”

    “Nah, he didn’t.”

    “Ask him to show it to you sometime when he’s ready,” I said. “He wrote a good one. I think he can really go somewhere. I really believe in him.”

    “I know you do. He tells me that all the time. Thank you, Mr. Stew. I mean it. Thank you.” “You’re welcome. I know it’s hard on him and you.”

    “Yeah, it is, but thank you,” she repeated. “Thank you for being someone who really finally loved him.”

    “You’re welcome.” We hung up.

    I put the phone down.

    I don’t know if I actually did a good job at that. But at least I know I tried. I tried to see myself in him and all the children who were just trying to survive, trying to live in between threats and lessons, hallelujahs and patriotic anthems, school uniforms and basketball shorts, dead Black bodies and Black bodies screaming in the streets, White boys with badges, White boys with Bibles, White boys with bullets, and a country that didn’t quite understand the meaning of love. I knew I couldn’t protect him. I couldn’t protect myself. I couldn’t protect my brother. I couldn’t protect my uncle. None of us could protect ourselves in places that were not concerned with our protection, but we could be loved.

    We are all trying. We see the world burning. We’ve seen knees on necks, they’ve seen White guys in blue suits, gold badges, red flags, yelling, screaming. They’ve seen cold bodies, overtaken by fear, grief, death. They need us. We need them. Hold them. We are trying. Hungry stomachs churning, minds finding ways to cope through Chromebooks and black controllers, wondering if anybody is screaming from the inside like them. We both are scared. Our palms are sweating. Our hearts, racing. We are more than scared. We’re angry. We’re lonely.

    I think about our kids so much. Even us, who still have faint memories of childhood we never dealt with. Places that have been haunting us, showing up like ghosts, coming and going. Going and coming. We are all wondering: Is there any place that is safe?

    So we are all trying.

    We are trying to hold one another, while our knees are weak, chests are tight, our worlds on fire, burning and burning and burning and burning. While we are all trying to simply exhale. Breathe. Even for a moment, in this place, that is enough. It is hard to fight; it’s harder to breathe. When we find that breath – shallow, short, still going – we know there is still life there. And if there is life, there is joy, there is peace, there is struggle, there is faith, there is hope, there is something, something that keeps us living.

    We believe, no matter how cold it is, that beautiful Black people must find beautiful Black love.

    From the book Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle by Danté Stewart. Copyright © 2021 by Danté Stewart. Published by Convergent Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

    Contributed By Dante Stewart Danté Stewart

    Danté Stewart is a writer and speaker.

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