After the shock of those first few moments, I have not doubted for a moment that Raynard meant well in sending me a Facebook friend request. Nor have I doubted that responding in kind was the right thing for me to do. The real challenge has been getting to know Raynard while sharing the room with an elephant: This mature and thoughtful adult sitting in front of me at lunch, asking for career advice and debating current events, was the same person who alleged that I had pushed him when he was 7years old.
The elephant wasn’t bitterness. I have never been angry at Raynard, even during the year of legal hell that spiraled from his accusation. No, it was fear. I knew that at some point, we needed to talk about that fateful day, but I was terrified to relive it myself — really, to relive any of my year as a teacher. I knew Raynard had apologized in his original message, but it was an ambiguous apology. I wanted to know what he remembered — and if that was what he was sorry about.
So after a few lunches together, I finally thought we were comfortable enough with each other to poke the elephant. Taking a deep breath, I told Raynard that as I had always recalled, his accusation was a total invention. There was a long pause. Speaking haltingly, he then admitted that this was a long time ago, but that he remembered something happening. Maybe it became something bigger after he told his mother, but still — something. Put simply, Raynard didn’t think he had deliberately fabricated events.
I was dismayed — and deeply confused. Our conversation weighed on me for months. What the heck was Raynard’s apology about then? How could our differing memories be reconciled? Could we even be friends — let alone write together — if we couldn’t even agree on what had happened in that pivotal moment?
We stopped corresponding for several months. Then I received a text from Raynard, unprompted, affirming for me that he strongly believed we should tell our story in print. A few weeks later, he asked me if I would be willing to give him some comments on an essay he was submitting for a scholarship. In those weeks, I finally decided to let go of the narrative I had built up in my head. Life, after all, is filled with loose threads. And, besides, Raynard had undoubtedly apologized for the consequences of his accusation, which was already more than I had any right to expect. In the end, the reward was not vindication of my side of the story. Rather, it was getting to know this remarkable person who was managing, through sheer willpower, to rise above the poverty and poor choices that had held back so many of his classmates at Emery Elementary School. Maybe this wouldn’t be the perfect Hollywood ending, but it was close enough.
And, frankly, I owed Raynard an apology of my own — an apology that I owed to all 50 of the kids I taught over the course of a year. To be sure, I worked my tail off and faced major obstacles: a lack of training, an incompetent principal, a Teach for America program that was largely indifferent to my struggles, a subset of students who came to school every morning looking for trouble, and the cultural and racial divide between my upper-middle-class background and the community in which I taught. But I can’t dodge the fact that I was not up to the task, possessing none of the classroom management skills that are a prerequisite for the job. All of my students lost a half a year of their education, and any veteran teacher surely would have improved upon the chaos that reigned in my classroom nine days out of 10.
So although I take no credit for the man Raynard has become, I hope to gain least a measure of redemption if I can play some small role in helping him transition from academic to professional success. Putting aside the “character building” and “what doesn’t kill you” cliches, perhaps there is still a chance of something positive coming out of my otherwise catastrophic teaching career.
But why share our story with the world at large? Why open ourselves up to Internet trolls and self-serving agendas? Why publicly pick the scab of some of the worst years of our respective lives? It’s a fair question to ask both of us, and here are my reasons.
First, as much as I have attempted — with some success — to move past this painful and embarrassing episode of my life, my teaching experience will always be a part of who I am. Receiving Raynard’s Facebook friend request was a reminder that in the digital age — for worse and (in this case) for better — we can never completely jettison our past.
I also think our story is worth telling at this very moment, one of the more racially contentious in our country’s history. When Raynard and I first discussed writing something together, Ferguson and Eric Garner hadn’t happened. We were certainly aware of how each of us was in many ways representative of this country’s tenacious racial and class divide. But this experience has made recent events far more personal for me: I see in Raynard the herculean effort it takes to overcome generations of poverty and build the social and professional networks that I have always taken for granted. Indeed, the fact that I was able to emerge from my crucible relatively unscathed demonstrates the enduring legacy of white privilege. I shudder to think where I would be today if my parents were not able to retain for me one of the better defense lawyers in the city.
Beyond this, the last few years have been a lesson in overreliance on assumptions. Everything I thought I knew about Raynard — both while I was teaching and in the immediate aftermath — has been uprooted and turned on its head. What other truths do we miss every time we prejudge individuals (as we all do) based on pat narratives and conventional wisdom?
Finally, most of the people to whom I have told this saga say that if it were them, they would have instantly deleted Raynard’s friend request. This strikes me as understandable — and I might have reacted the same way if Raynard had reached out to me much earlier, when my wounds were still raw. But the fact that my reaction (to say nothing of Raynard’s decision to reach out to me) has been met with such astonishment is a testament to the tendency of our species to hold grudges. Knowing Raynard has enriched my own life. If Raynard and I can become friends, maybe there is hope for everyone to bury their own respective hatchets.
Josh Kaplowitz is a lawyer who lives in Arlington.
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