Demonstrators protesting the acquittal of former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley march on Sept. 17, 2017 in St. Louis. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Erika Whitfield is a seventh-grade language arts teacher in a public school in St. Louis.

I’m teaching my second-period class when a colleague pokes his head into my classroom and asks if I’ve heard: Stockley was acquitted.

Former St. Louis police officer Jason Stockley, who fatally shot Anthony Lamar Smith and, according to prosecutors, planted a gun on him to justify the killing, would be going free.

My classroom phone starts ringing, summoning students to the principal’s office. Fearing a backlash against the verdict, parents are dismissing their children from school early on this September day. The look on my face signals to the remaining students that something serious is happening.

I sit in a chair in the middle of the classroom, decorated with a poster of Angela Davis and a Black Lives Matter sign, and ask my seventh-graders if they know what’s going on. They have cellphones; they knew before I did. I explain to them how important they are to the world. How they are the right generation to be the change agents who end police violence against people in their communities. My emotions start to get the best of me, so I simply listen to them talk.

“I heard the cop brought his own gun to work.”

“He said he was going to kill the black guy, and he did.”

“The police can do whatever they want.”

“If the suspect was white, he would have lived.”

“What’s that white dude’s name that killed all those black people in the church?” one student asks. I respond, “Dylann Roof.”

“They bought him McDonald’s,” the student says. “I don’t know nobody who gets arrested and gets McDonald’s.”

I do not stop the conversation because every word they say is true. They know it, and I know it.

To me, a lifelong St. Louisan, the racism that I and many other black people in our city face feels normal. A major component of that is our interactions with the police. Avoiding certain areas of the city because of fear of being pulled over, avoiding any and every possibility of being face to face with a state trooper or an officer or a sheriff — these are typical conversations in black households. But now these are conversations in my classroom. As a teacher at a public school in St. Louis, I’m talking about this with 12-year-olds, thanks to the high-profile deaths of two black men at the hands of white police officers and the turmoil that followed. Three years after officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, students are beginning yet another school year discussing police brutality. These events have brought an urgency to my teaching that wasn’t there before. Their generation is defiant enough to force change; now it’s my job to prepare them to do it.

After Brown was killed on Aug. 9, 2014, our school’s principal encouraged teachers to responsibly engage our students in discussions of race in our city, as long as we included their values and perspectives as part of our instruction. Not everyone agreed. Some teachers thought we should wait until the police finished their investigation, while the rest of us were thinking that in the time that Brown’s body lay lifeless on the street, the investigation could have been completed. But the principal believed, as I do, that when one teaches in a predominantly black school, there is a greater obligation to truth. Before Brown’s death, I thought we could shield our students a little more. But they aren’t that far from Brown’s age, or Tamir Rice’s. They could be victims.

Issues of race and policing are not abstractions for my seventh-graders. Students explained how, even before Brown’s death, their parents refused to call the police for fear of being arrested for reasons unrelated to the phone call. Death was a totally illogical but possible result from one interaction with a police officer — why chance it? If someone was hurt, students told me, an adult would drive them to the hospital rather than call for help.

Male students discussed how, when walking with a group of friends, being questioned by the police was commonplace. These are kids I teach daily, who horseplay in the halls, cry when a classmate takes their pencils, laugh at corny jokes and fart loudly during instruction. They’re children. But when police see them, these immature boys morph into suspects. The thought of one of my students being accosted by police and shot dead makes my ears red and my blood run boiling hot. And they recount these interactions with police as if they are telling me the weather. No emotion. It’s normal to them.

These conversations have heightened the stakes for what I do in my classroom. I don’t know what teacher my students will have next year — she could be a first-year teacher, or someone who grew up in a community exactly the opposite of theirs who doesn’t understand these issues. While I have them under my care, I’ve got to help them connect their experiences to the wider conversation. When you’re starting out as a teacher, you worry about things like a student showing up to class without a pencil. Now, I say forget the pencil. I’ve got pencils. You just bring your brain and your body, and I’m going to teach you.

I could spend weeks teaching lessons on police brutality in St. Louis and nationwide, but I am required to teach the curriculum provided by our district. And I do. But ignoring what’s happening in our city isn’t being culturally responsive to the needs of my students. I’ve decided to focus on why our city is so segregated. I talk about the Delmar Divide , named after a road that splits St. Louis racially and socioeconomically, with million-dollar mansions on one side and poverty on the other. I talk about the history of our city: What did St. Louis look like a long time ago? Where did people live and work? Where do people live now? The kids are completely surprised to hear that the places they know — the roads, the neighborhoods, the buildings — contain so much meaning. Our school sits on the site of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing project, which helped separate black residents from other parts of St. Louis. I take them on a tour of our campus. In one hallway, 12 photos chronicle the transformation of the neighborhood before and after Pruitt-Igoe, including its implosion. It’s a great starting point for their understanding and opens the door to discussing gentrification, food deserts, disparities in education.

We connect these discussions to the material I’m required to teach. We’re reading Linda Sue Parks’s “A Long Walk to Water,” a story based on true events. The main character, Salva, travels thousands of miles in Sudan to avoid war, losing friends and family along the way. In the end, he finds a way to provide running water for a Sudanese community. The students see themselves in Salva, who is 11 when the book starts, but grows up and is able to make a difference. This is my goal for my students: that they will develop a plan in their communities to have a positive impact, like Salva does.

“Why can’t we just be equal?” one of my first-period students asks. A simple question. The answer begins at the inception of the “middle passage” in the 1400s, with no end in sight.

I’m a good teacher. But in one measly class period, I cannot answer that question in a way that truly quantifies the layers of racial disparity in our city that keep us from being equal . My response mirrors the simplicity of the question: “I don’t know.” It’s not that I don’t have an answer. I have way too many answers. However, my theories don’t really matter. What matters are the conclusions and inferences my students develop on their own, based on the truth.

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