(Casondra Hill, a student who dared trust the bond with her teacher)
It was April 30, 1992, the somber and disheartening day the African-American students in our school had finally had enough. It was the day after the verdict came down in the Rodney King case.
Four L.A. police officers had been acquitted of the charge they’d used excessive force in controlling their man, one Rodney King, a petty law-offender who’d been beaten to unconsciousness for a traffic violation, caught on tape and replayed for millions of T.V.-viewing Americans across the land.
They’d pummeled, kicked, and clubbed him, yet the force of their actions was deemed justifiable by an all-white jury. Los Angeles would burn that night, fuelled by the rage of a people tired of waiting for the day when “we shall overcome.” And our school would, in turn, be adversely buffeted by these events.
I was in my third year teaching at this suburban high school, but it was actually two years earlier, when I first came to the high school, that I met Casondra.
She was a statuesque young woman, standing 5’10” tall, vying with me for the label of “tallest female in the room.” She had come to our school with her cousin, Olivia, from an inner-city school in Providence. Both girls entered my 10th. grade tech. prep. class, but whereas Casondra and I hit it off immediately, Olivia eyed me with distrust.
These girls were both vocal and spoke out on what they believed; they weren’t afraid to take an unpopular stand on issues that most of their peers would have skirted in self-protective mode. But whereas Olivia frightened others with her intensity, Casondra was an effective leader who commanded across-the-board respect.
It was obvious to all that Casondra loved life and had a distinct ability to lose herself to mirth. She was blessed with a full, rich laugh, one that spiced up the class and was most contagious.
I only learned the following year of another talent she possessed, the year she had another teacher for English. During this period she became a sort of diva in our school who favored us during school convocations with her wonderful, lusty singing voice. She’d get up on the stage with her ‘sisters’ (the small minority of young women of color who came to our school) and belt out a show-stopper of a song, which, combined with their dance antics, usually brought down the house.
In Casondra’s senior year, she was assigned to me again, this time for 12th. grade English. I’d been late starting the school year, only returning the first week of November, recovering from the unexpected death of my fiancee.
She’d become a woman in these two years and exuded all her new-found confidence in this realm. And she was deeply aware of my pain; after all, she used to help me carry the monthly floral arrangements he sent to me at school.
One day, soon after I returned, she told me she was sorry for my loss, and I unexpectedly filled up. It was at that time that she hugged and comforted me, this woman-child. For one brief moment, the tables turned: I was the child and she was the adult.
Now, schools often feel like distinct little oases out of the public drift. They are islands unto themselves whose very being and operation occur almost in a vacuum, and only occasionally does the real world intrude. The day following the LA verdict would be one of those days.
I saw her coming down the hall, leading several others in tow, two of whom were classmates of hers, my students as well. I could see the sense of betrayal in her eyes and the conviction in her stance. When she came up to me, she announced, “Mrs. Mellor, I’m really sorry about this, but we can’t stay for class…we’re going to walk…”
I fully recognized the seriousness of the moment and knew, too, that if Casondra walked, she’d take most with her, some similarly affected by the unfairness of the world they’d inherited and others whose motives were less than honorable.
And because I didn’t want to let her go with her own terrible pain at this point, I replied, “Look, Casondra, I can understand how you feel, but I only ask that if you feel the need to do this, at least go in to your classmates and tell them your reasons. Because otherwise, you make them feel betrayed as well. They care about you. Just explain it to them, first, please.”
With that, she thought about what I said, weighed it with her comrades, and agreed to my request. Following my brief introduction to all concerning what this was about, they took center-stage, while I drifted to the back of the room.
First, these young spoke of that trial, the verdict, and why it was of momentous importance to African-Americans everywhere. And then they talked about their own individual pain and difficulty growing up black in a community and school that was mostly white: the police who questioned their mere presence in their own neighborhood, suspicious shop-keepers who followed their every movement, kids and even some adults in school who made disparaging remarks, the collective misery and suffering they had all endured, now brought into focus by what happened in LA, the final outrage.
Before we all knew it, the bell rang, signaling the end of the period. But we all stayed, while the rest of the student population moved, and my next class gathered in the hallway, intensely aware that something really important was happening.
These kids all learned a great deal that day, other than the academic. And all teens who fervently wished for the liberty and freedom of an adult population everywhere empathized with peers who were hard-pressed to maintain the most basic human rights.
And so, the students didn’t walk that day, nor on successive days either. And we’d been the more profoundly affected by what did transpire, a sharing of deep emotion and feeling, coupled with a new-found respect for each other, all made possible because a young woman trusted her teacher and had the brave willingness to take that trust to the next level.
***From Colleen Kelly Mellor’s book: Chalk It Up! (To My 30 Years Before a Class). As result of what students spoke about in that classroom, dialogue was initiated in the city between students and police, in attempts to end that latter group’s racial profiling.
(From Facebook, Casondra Hill in family photo–She’s 3rd. from right.)