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A Charleston Teacher Finds Strength in the Face of Tragedy
Adam Weaver is a 2013 South Carolina corps member and high school teacher in Charleston.
When I arrived at work last Thursday morning I was told we were in a Cold Yellow lockdown. There was a gunman at large in the Charleston area.
I dug into the local news and learned that a white man had walked into Mother Emanuel AME Church and sat with congregants for more than an hour before he murdered nine innocent men and women.
I spent the rest of the day reeling. As a Teach For America corps member, I had moved to this city with the intention of fighting for racial equality and social justice. However, here and now, racism, hatred, and injustice were staring us all in the face.
I woke up the next morning to find my roommate, a fellow teacher at my school, crying in the kitchen. I asked what was wrong, and she explained that one of the victims of the shooting, Reverend Depayne Middleton Doctor, was the mother of one of our students, Kaylin.
I had coached Kaylin on the track team in my first year, served as one of her English teachers that spring, and watched her walk across the stage at graduation just a few weeks before. My roommate had coached her and her sister Hali in volleyball for the past two years.
Kaylin is one of the most driven, respectful, kind, and passionate students we have ever had the pleasure of working with. She shows perseverance and dedication in everything that she does. In fact, it was a familiar sight to see Kaylin at practice early the day after a bad meet, yelling to the coaching staff, “It’s about time you all got here! Are we gonna work today or what?”
Her drive and determination transferred over to the classroom, where I watched her make such intelligent and empathetic connections to literature. These qualities also surfaced in her relationship with Hali. As sisters, they share a loving and compassionate bond indicative of the incredible character and sense of family that their mother instilled in them. All of Kaylin's hard work and commitment led to her acceptance to Johnson and Wales University in Providence this fall, which had her mother beaming with pride.
Now this child who I’d come to respect and care for so deeply would have to bury a parent. This loving, compassionate young woman has to live knowing that someone killed her mother because of her skin color. I came here to fight this kind of injustice, but I feel small. I am numb. I am angry, afraid, and heartbroken, but most of all, I feel powerless.
I felt this way before. More than two years ago, I had just celebrated by 22nd birthday and was about to finish my senior year at Boston University when two bombs erupted at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and changed everything.
You see, I was supposed to be there. I had attended the marathon for the past three years and was excited for my senior marathon experience. But this time, a paper with a pressing due date kept me at home.
To this day, I can recall the overwhelming and gut-wrenching sense of panic, fear, anger, and vulnerability that washed over me that day. Every fiber of my body told me to act, but no part of my mind could even begin to process what to do. After hours of pacing and attempting to break through the barrier of full phone lines, I was able to contact my friends, all of whom fortunately walked away from the event physically unharmed.
In the aftermath of the marathon bombing, we came together as a community and showed our strength and resilience. I put a ribbon on the mirror of my car that says “4/15/13: Boston Strong.” Now we have Charleston Strong, as this community attempts to do the same.
I am in awe of the way that Bostonians and Charlestonians have come together to heal. I can’t help but wonder, though, if there’s a different kind of strength—or at the least a different perception of strength that we should be exploring? What does it look like for a community to admit that it is not strong? What kind of strength could we build if we could admit the ways in which our communities are broken?
In her press conference last week, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said: “On matters of race, South Carolina has a tough history. We all know that. Many of us have seen it in our own lives—in the lives of our parents and our grandparents. We don’t need reminders.”
But we do need reminders. Brene Brown, a professor of social work who researches topics like shame, captures the importance of these reminders in her research. In her book Daring Greatly, she says:
Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and to speak it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it beings to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly to the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.
Our history in Charleston is our shame. Our unwillingness to engage with our history perpetuates a cycle of racially charged violence and oppression. It is the willingness to engage and bring this shame to light that allows us to make progress.
All over Charleston and all over the nation, I see people fighting desperately to bring this shame into the light. As Brown says, by speaking shame, we destroy it. By owning our past and taking responsibility for the change we want to see in the future, we become catalysts for renewal. As Kaylin and the rest of our community continue to heal, I continue to search for those open to engage. While nothing can alter what has occurred, our willingness to be brave and take responsibility for the future can make all the difference—for her and all the students who pass through our schools.
If you would like to help support my student Kaylin and the entire family of Reverend Depayne Middleton Doctor, please go to our GoFundMe page and donate. Every donation, no matter the amount, will help to ease the financial burden of this incredible and loving family.