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The Great Divide

A tale of two schools and the way they teach — or fail to teach — about racism

Zakia Jarrett posed for a portrait in front of the Pierce Middle School.
Zakia Jarrett posed for a portrait in front of the Pierce Middle School.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

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As Zakia Jarrett watched protests roll across the country this month, a wave of reaction to the killing of George Floyd, the Milton teacher saw an opportunity. She carefully crafted a lesson for her sixth-grade English classes at Pierce Middle School, assigning two poems about racism by the Black poet Langston Hughes.

She had no idea her June 4 lesson — and a reference within it to police racism — would place her on a collision course with the norms and expectations of her mostly white school district, resulting in an investigation of her conduct and putting her job at risk after 18 years of teaching.

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The episode triggered painful self-reflection in affluent Milton, which prides itself on being more diverse than most suburbs, just one day after thousands of residents gathered at a June 4 protest against racism. And it illuminated stark and pervasive differences in the way race is talked about in suburbs like Milton, compared to many schools in neighboring Boston, where most of the students are Black or Latino.

In Milton, where 70 percent of the middle school’s students are white, some teachers and families say they have long been frustrated by a deep resistance to acknowledging — and talking about — the persistence of racism in American culture and institutions. But just a few miles away at the McCormack Middle School in Boston, where close to 90 percent of students are Black or Latino, and at many other city schools, the subject is ingrained in curriculum and everyday conversation.

“Societal segregation is part of the problem, and how different people — neighbors in the same supposedly progressive state — are seeing the same things so differently,” said Marcus Walker, a teacher at Boston’s Fenway High School.

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This tale of two schools and the ways in which they talk — and avoid talking — about race is reflective of a broader divide in America, where people in majority-white settings have long shied away from discussions of race, to the detriment of all.

In Milton, where her run-in with school leaders ignited widespread outrage, Jarrett fears what happened will deepen teachers’ silence, in her town’s suburban classrooms, and beyond.

“Students already think it’s taboo to talk about race, and I worry that this just confirms that,” she said. “If we believe as a society that antiracism is a goal, we need to teach it actively to all our students.”

***

As she prepared to post her poetry lesson in her Google classroom earlier this month, Jarrett believed she was doing what school officials wanted. Three days earlier, in a letter sent to every family in the district, Superintendent Mary Gormley and the town’s six principals had urged both teachers and parents to talk about race.

“Our silence on issues of race and equity will be interpreted by those in our care that we accept the current, unjust reality — and we do not,” the June 1 letter said.

But some teachers still felt anxious. “We’ve heard that message before,” said Danielle Huebner, a Latin teacher at the middle school, who is white. “But many of us have been afraid for a long time to speak the truth about racism.”

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Jarrett felt prepared for the challenge. A Black woman, Dorchester native, and Milton Academy graduate, she encouraged talk about differences and invited her father into her classroom to mesmerize students with his vivid tales of the civil rights movement, often receiving thank-you notes from parents.

Virtual learning was not the best forum for tackling racism, but Jarrett did her best. In a videotaped lesson, she dissected two Langston Hughes poems — “Island” and “I, Too” — before asking students to analyze a third on their own. That poem, “Allowables” by Nikki Giovanni, describes killing a spider. It ends with the line: “I don’t think I’m allowed/ To kill something/ Because I am/ Frightened.”

When she saw from their comments that her students didn’t understand, Jarrett added a bit more guidance in another video clip. The spider was like some Black victims of violence, she explained — killed because of prejudice and fear.

“Like in the case of Ahmaud Arbery,” she said, referring to the Black jogger shot and killed by three white men in Brunswick, Ga., “being killed by racist white people … which many of the cops are as well.”

Nothing about the lesson gave her pause; her assertion seemed self-evident. At 3:30 p.m. on Friday, June 5, when her principal called and told her she was being placed on immediate paid leave while an investigation took place, Jarrett had no idea what she might have done.

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She had never been accused of any wrongdoing before. With her husband ill, her teaching job provided the family’s sole income. They had recently purchased a home in Milton, putting down roots, and planned to send their 4-year-old to local schools.

Now, locked out of her work e-mail account and her own online lessons, Jarrett felt her future plunge into doubt. She learned from friends that someone with access to her lesson had filmed a 13-second video copy of her reference to police — in violation of a district policy enacted this spring prohibiting the recording or sharing of online instruction — and that it was ricocheting around the district.

She heard that someone had sent it to a state trooper, and, she presumed, other law enforcement officers.

All at once, she felt targeted, unsafe. “It was terrifying on so many levels,” she said. “I was being punished for saying a truth.”

***

Seven miles away from the Milton middle school where Jarrett teaches, Neema Avashia was also talking about police and racism as the school year wound down in her eighth-grade civics class at the John W. McCormack Middle School in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. But there, the conversation was nearly as routine as a lesson on state capitals or geometry.

The class was already studying the 1965 Watts rebellion in Los Angeles when news broke of Floyd’s death last month at the hands of Minneapolis police. In that uprising a half century ago, Black residents revolted after witnessing a violent struggle between white patrolmen and a Black motorist.

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The six violent days that followed — in which 34 people died, 23 of them killed by Los Angeles police or the National Guard, and hundreds of buildings burned to the ground — were often labeled riots, but Avashia asked her students to question that description and consider the Black residents’ deep-rooted frustrations with segregation and their distrust of the police. Floyd’s death made the lesson resonate, but by no means was it a new theme.

“I don’t think you can teach civics in this country without talking about race, because the foundation of this country is racism,” said Avashia. “There is no America without slavery.”

For students of color, confronting racism isn’t optional, she added: “It’s a matter of survival.”

In another class at the Boston middle school, English teacher Monique Symes recently hosted a virtual panel discussion where one of her Black colleagues, seventh-grade math teacher Natasha Gittens-Anthony, talked about her growing skepticism of police.

“I don’t want to have any interaction” with police officers, Gittens-Anthony told students. “That causes inner conflict for me, because they’ve obviously been painted as protectors.”

Gittens-Anthony received no pushback, much less the firestorm that erupted in Milton over Jarrett’s passing mention of racist police.

“People need to speak up,” said Jalissa Brown-Pierre, a seventh-grader at the McCormack. “When we shut up, we’re basically making it OK for it to happen.”

In Milton, seventh-grader Jacira King wishes her teachers would speak up more. No one at school led a discussion about George Floyd’s death, though her chorus director, Julia Hanna, expressed solidarity with Black students, writing to them in a public message to the entire class, “I see you. I hear you. I’m here for you.”

“It’s like an unwritten law at my school that you can’t talk about race too much,” said King, who is Black.

***

Outrage spread like wildfire through Milton after the decision to place Jarrett on leave. Supporters of the teacher quickly wrote a letter condemning the district’s response.

“Because we live in a society plagued by systemic and institutionalized racism, her comments do not represent anything false,” the letter said. “We feel strongly that educators in our town must be able to address racism with clarity and transparency.”

Hundreds of people signed the letter, which also called for a districtwide strategic plan to combat racism. Among them was Meredith Thayer, the mother of a sixth-grader. After initially worrying that the district wasn’t addressing Floyd’s death, she had been relieved to see her daughter processing current events in Jarrett’s class, even writing a sonnet about the protests.

“To have a teacher talking about it, and the district’s first response is to silence it — that’s exactly what perpetuates systemic racism,” said Thayer, who is white.

As angry e-mails multiplied, officials shifted course. The middle school principal called Jarrett back a few hours later to tell her she had been reinstated, not because she had been cleared of wrongdoing, but because of the community reaction.

Jarrett says the Pierce Middle School principal, William Fish, made it clear she had erred by inappropriately sharing a personal opinion with her students. She said he asked to speak with her further over the weekend about why she shouldn’t have said what she said, a request she says she declined.

A week after the incident, in a public statement, Milton’s School Committee acknowledged that their actions had “caused pain” and hurt students.

“This incident has caused the District to deeply reflect on our processes and practices,” the June 12 statement said. “We are engaging in conversations with stakeholders … around the important issues of race and social justice.”

School officials said they are still investigating who violated school policy by filming Jarrett’s lesson, and will “take action as appropriate.”

***

Boston schools have gaps too, teachers said. But the district’s central office offers guidance for teaching students as young as kindergarten about race. It offers sample lessons for older students on the history of hate symbols, racism, and the Jim Crow laws as a “form of racialized social control.”

That helps affirm teachers like Symes, at the McCormack school in Boston, who said she has always felt safe sharing her perspective in her classroom. And it fuels the sense of mission some Black teachers feel about teaching from their own experience.

Boston teacher Gittens-Anthony said it’s important for her as a Black woman to be “transparent” with her students, especially when many carry their own fears of the police. “It would be an injustice for me not to talk about it when my students have so many questions,” she said.

In contrast, for teachers in Milton, speaking out feels even more perilous now.

Huebner, who teaches Latin in Milton and has also taught in Boston, said she worries far more about what she says in Milton. Like other teachers, she withdrew from participating in the district’s planned “Day of Reflection” after what happened to Jarrett, because it seemed too risky now to lead student discussions of racism.

“There are always going to be families who disagree with the work, because it challenges their world view, but that’s exactly why we need to do it,” said Hanna, the Milton chorus director.

Milton teachers aren’t alone in their discomfort. In a recent national study of about 500 teachers, only 30 percent said they felt sure parents would support conversations about race and racial violence. Many teachers who expressed less confidence in how the community would respond said they taught in largely white, conservative districts.

Milton school administrators say work is ongoing to train teachers and make classrooms more inclusive. The curriculum is under review, with plans to make content more explicitly antiracist, assistant superintendent Karen Spaulding said, and administrators recently underwent training to help them better understand and confront racism. Similar training began last week for the district’s 400 educators, with plans to train all teachers by early next year.

“Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely,” said Milton High School’s principal, James Jette, who is Black. “Are we committed to doing that work? Absolutely.”

Jarrett doesn’t know if she will stay to see that work play out. She has felt widespread support, including a march and rally organized by her fellow teachers. But she acknowledges she has no idea how many Milton families objected to her lesson.

“The word ‘racism’ triggers a lot of negative feelings,” she said. “The idea that people may hold racist beliefs makes them feel bad about themselves. But all people have biases and prejudices. And until we talk about them, we can’t root them out.”



Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.