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Understanding Black Lives Matter through the eyes of a teacher

Hundreds of protestors chanting "Black Lives Matter" march through Baltimore decrying police shootings. (Caitlin Faw and Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun video)

Ask most Baltimore or D.C. teachers or principals about their daily work and I bet you will better understand the Black Lives Matter movement.

I am a white man who was a high school teacher and assistant principal respectively in Baltimore City Public Schools and the District of Columbia Public Schools. I vividly remember the environment in my first school and the schools I visited across the city as a basketball coach: rodents, roaches, leaking toilets seeping into hallways, bars over frosted windows, rotten ceiling tiles, missing floor tiles, undrinkable tap water, decade-old textbooks, and broken and unsecured doors.

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When we left the city for games at suburban high schools, my players asked, "Is this really a school, is this like a college?" I began to think, Do Baltimore schools matter?

I drove players home at night, but I didn't tell them I was scared on certain streets. I thought, "I'm 22, in a car, and I'm scared of Park Heights, meanwhile my student lives here." How much does his life matter in relation to my own?

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In my American Government class in Baltimore, I became the student and listened to stories about the police, illegal searches and "baby bookings." I told my mentor teacher that my sophomore students know more about how the criminal justice system works than I do. Do my students' rights mean as much as my own?

In D.C., many students came to school hungry, dirty, tired and upset. We washed their clothes, fed them three meals a day and had a mental health team on staff, but we couldn't get much help from social service agencies. A staff member once asked me, "Does anyone in the city care about our kids?"

Also in D.C., I remember when an 8th grade student of mine was murdered and telling our mostly white and middle class faculty the bad news. We cried, but our students counseled us because they had been through this before. I remember when Boogie, one of my basketball players was murdered a few years back, and another former player saying, "Well, you knew it had to be at least one of us." I thought, "No, I did not know that." Do my basketball players matter?

A D.C. police officer helped at our school. Once, we worked together to help a 14-year-old; for over a year and a half we petitioned government offices, bought food, did home visits, made contracts, offered up incentives, and tried to be mentors. Nobody listened as he ran from foster homes, group homes and juvenile detention centers. Do kids in the criminal justice system matter?

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I witnessed other police pepper spray and club students, call them the N-word or bastards, and manhandle them for pictures of tattoos. One day I sat down at a bar in Baltimore and a police officer next to me struck up a conversation. When I told him I was a teacher in Baltimore he bought me a beer, took his gun out of his holster, and said to me while holding his gun, "your job's tougher than mine because you have to go in there with those animals without this, you need this more than I do."

Many Baltimore and D.C. teachers want justice for their students and support Black Lives Matter because they want a more just society. Black Lives Matter is not just about policing and the war on drugs in the black community, but about the dehumanization of black people. Black Lives Matter is about basic human rights, which includes the right to a quality education, safe housing and adequate health care,

When I think about Boogie and Isaiah and my other former students who are dead, incarcerated or trapped in poverty, I know black lives do not yet matter as much as other lives. I still go to sleep praying to God that my former students are safe.

David DeMatthews is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso and a former public school educator in Baltimore and Washington D.C. His email is dedematthews@utep.edu.

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