Between the Echoes: Broken School Windows and Unbreakable Boys
An offshoot of Ed Trust’s Echoes From the Gap series, drawing stories of students from behind the statistics, this blog series shares shorter narratives — brief glimpses into classrooms and hallways — that give readers an opportunity to examine educator practices and policies through the intimate lens of student experience. All stories are based on interviews or first-hand accounts, but are shared with respect for the privacy of students and the adults around them.
It started with a hat.
“Take that off.” One of three posted at the school entrance, the school resource officer was twice the size of the boy. His badge hung around his neck, a shining reminder that, even in school, black boys were suspects before students. Even sometimes in the eyes of men who looked like them.
Youthful defiance and a still developing ability to negotiate power dynamics, the boy refused.
“Take off that Santa Claus hat.”
The hat was from his mother.
It escalated, neither student nor adult professional backing down. It was no longer about a hat or a school rule. It was about power. And respect.
“You know I can put you in cuffs and arrest you right now. I can put you in that squad car right now!”
With the officer’s words, the situation erupted further. A flurry of profanity and empty adolescent threats tumbled out of the boy’s mouth and onto the ground he felt he couldn’t cede. He was no longer a kid but a threat. And that’s how he would be handled. By the book. It was intended to be for his own good.
They were training him, the school resource officer and assistant principal, both African American men, later told me. The school’s own version of broken windows policing. Getting him ready, they said, to be a black man in America. Making him unbreakable.
Shoulder to shoulder with the school officer afterward, the assistant principal stood over the boy seated in the main office, students, parents and staff all around.
“You see this badge on this man? He’s a cop. I can’t control what he does in here. He CAN arrest you.”
The boy’s head was down.
“They don’t care if you have an IEP out there.”
Shoulders caved in, making him smaller than he already was — than he already felt.
“He can take you straight to jail.”
I am sitting next to him. A white woman. As women, there are rules that we’re taught by our mothers to survive. But those rules are different. I don’t know — can’t know — what it truly is to be a black man in America. I don’t know how to prepare the young black men I advocate for inside school to survive outside. But I’m sometimes less than clear that inside is any more forgiving.
There would be charges from the incident the day before, we were told. The officer was there to “take him.” But he couldn’t let them take him. Away from his brother, his rock. Away to where they had taken his mother countless times. It was too late for them to tell him they weren’t going to actually take him in — just charge him and, in a symbolic, questionable scared-straight measure, have the officer release him. He was frantic. Desperate. He couldn’t hear anything they were saying.
So he did the only thing he could think of. He ran.
And police procedure took over.
It ended with a take-down. Two big cops on one little boy. He resisted. I remember them taking him to the ground. The officer’s knee on his neck, trying to hold him still. His tear- and terror-streaked face pressed into the frost-covered grass as he kicked, trying to escape. I remember his cries as he continued to resist. The sound of his small frame pushed down on the trunk of the squad car. Legs kicked wide. He spit. The saliva from his mouth across his face. Metal cuffs clapped on thin wrists.
I remember how the two officers crowded the car door trying to get him into the front seat of the squad car.
“You need to calm down!”
The scene was harsh and horrible, but somehow not without love. I remember his screams turning to pleas turning to cries turning to whimpers. Turning to silence.
I remember them driving off with him to the precinct. They didn’t want to have to do it, they said. They had to train him. Teach him to obey authority. To instill lessons before he was sent out into a world where conditions for black young men would be harsher and the stakes higher.
The lessons black boys have to learn.
Maybe one day it saves his life. And we’ll stand on the steps of the school, looking out over the ground littered with shards of glass and scarred young men and say it was worth it.
And hope that his voice sounds clear and strong when he needs it.
Hope he can hold his head high in the face of fear and intimidation.
Hope he knows his power.
Hope that, in efforts to make him unbreakable, we didn’t inflict the first crack.