Hoodies, African-American men and a conflicted Brooklyn teacher

Is telling students to put their hoods down enforcing a dress code or something more?
Is telling students to put their hoods down enforcing a dress code or something more? Photo Credit: Getty Images / Jessica Kourkounis

I returned to teaching middle school last September and for the first time, co-taught a class that consisted of all boys; cute little sixth-graders with navy polo shirts, tan khakis and rich personalities. 

But this isn’t a private school. And they weren’t wearing prep school uniforms. It’s the last public middle school in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. A neighborhood of increasing wealth and diversity, but this classroom remained homogeneous. 

All boys. Almost all African-American. 

The uniform was set, but there was one caveat: Students had the option of wearing a dark-colored hoodie, so long as the hood was down. 

But middle school boys don’t always listen. Most days, there is a chorus of school staff: “Take the hood off.” “Please remove your hood.” “You can’t wear your hood.”

On occasion, a school saftey agent dressed in blue will gently tug a hood down; the student might moan, but he goes on his way. Dollars to doughnuts the hoods will be back on their heads by the end of the school day. 

In the confines of our school, I can live with a kid having a hood on his head. There are more important things to worry about. It’s when they leave here that I get concerned, because the hoodie has become a symbol of the fractured relationship between the police and African-American communities.

When you teach children, sometimes they become your surrogates. I see them as my own, and look after them as such. I don’t always get it right; some days they adore me and some they don’t. Yet, after a school year together, we form a special bond.  One previously mischievous child deemed me his “school auntie,” a comment that had me filled with pride for weeks.

 How does a hood change a student?

My sixth-graders last year were different.   

This was the first time since my own middle school experience that I was surrounded by young black men. And I felt a certain fear. 

Not afraid of the children, but afraid for them. 

In our classroom, we taught them strength and love and pride.  We let them know that if they worked hard they could achieve anything.  Even the ones others gave up on. We watched them grow from playful young kids to charming young men.  And in one year, their voices and their bodies changed with them. 

I could enforce school rules and regulations.  I could offer them guidance and support, but it was not my place to tell them what to wear; how they should to express their individuality in the world. And I certainly couldn’t tell them not to wear those hoodies — even though I wanted to. 

It was just a piece of clothing. The same damn hoodies the white hipsters sport every day, on the same block — trying to be down, to fit into the culture in Brooklyn. 

But these kids, these young men, put them on as naturally as their socks and who am I — their only white teacher — to tell them how to present themselves when my skin color allows me to wear these sweatshirts without fear?

And if I told them, ordered them, to take them off what would my reason be? If you wear a hoodie you might get shot? If you look a certain way, you might draw the attention of the police?

I cannot protect you

This is who they are. This is what they look like. Why do they have to change? 

“You cannot wear a hoodie,” starts a poem I first saw shared on Instagram. “You cannot breathe.  You cannot sell CDs.”

There are consequences for being black and going about life. That’s what happened to Trayvon Martin in Florida and Eric Garner in Staten Island and Philando Castile in Minnesota. The list of senseless loss is much larger.

Our school does tell them what to wear to school. They have a uniform. Just like the police do.

They both wear blue. And both are equally vulnerable when they go outside. This is not acceptable.

As an educator, I have an obligation to do more. Next year, they will be in seventh grade and their uniforms will change. 

Will I still tell my students to take off their hoodies, or will I tell them to wear them proudly? No matter what I say, as the poem ends, “I cannot protect you.”

Elana Rabinowitz is a writer and teacher in Brooklyn. This is part of an occasional series of guest amExpress columns.