No More Locked Doors: Jamar Clark Was My Student

Jamar Clark

Image courtesy Ted Hall Photography


Note: For the sake of confidentiality, I’ve omitted some of the names of the subjects of this piece, including only what has already been reported elsewhere. Additionally, this piece originally appeared at the Minnesota Writing Project's Urban Sites Network Blog, which I help operate.

While I love teaching, there is, at times, an emotional weight that comes with it that I couldn’t even begin to try to describe to those outside of the profession. These last days of 2015 have produced grisly news headlines whose subjects intersected with my life as a direct result of me being an educator: this one murdered by police, that one beaten and hospitalized by his students, another charged with murder and aggravated robbery; the latest additions to a pile of similar headlines that have touched me over the years.

I began my career in education in the spring of 2005 working as a paraprofessional at Harrison Education Center, a federal setting IV facility for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities (E/BD). I was 27, a student at Metropolitan State University’s Urban Teacher Program, and eager to get my foot in the door in a public school.

I was also in completely over my head.

I figured I could handle the E/BD part — I was coming from a day program for adults with developmental disabilities where human bites were a hazard of the job — but this place was absolute mayhem.

The administrative style could best be described as laissez-faire, ill-advised under the best of circumstances.

These were not the best of circumstances.

A word about E/BD for the uninitiated, and please note, there is an awful lot of my own opinion seeping in here: E/BD is solely an educational disability, which is to say that you could receive the label of E/BD from a school but not be diagnosed with any sort of other real and actual medical disability. Ostensibly, the idea is that your inability to regulate your emotions (and subsequently your behavior) is a barrier to the education of yourself and/or your peers. It can look a lot of different ways, does often accompany actual disorders (Oppositional Defiant Disorder is a big one), is far more subjective than many would like to admit, and is, as a result,given disproportionately to African-American males.

As for the settings, setting IV means 100% of a student’s day is spent in special education, so a federal setting IV high school for students with an E/BD designation means a lot of locked doors, and a lot of students who were deemed unable to make it in a more mainstream setting.

It was, as I said, chaos.

I learned a lot, mostly about gangs, about how to and how not to talk to students when they are escalated, and about injustice. Sadly, the students weren’t learning anything. The worksheet was king, particularly the word find. I vowed in those years never to assign a word find for any reason. (So far, so good.)

The next year the head of special education for Minneapolis Public Schools took the school over. He restored order, relative to what it had been, and insisted that teachers actually teach. Things were better, functional even, though I’m pretty sure no one was ever asked to write a paper in the time that I was there.

During that time I met Jamar Clark. He must have been about sixteen, and while he did at times display an explosive temper, he was mostly quiet, with a mischievous sense of humor. As these things go, I only remember a handful of things about him really well: 1) I remember his face. He had an incredibly expressive face. A quick google image search of his name yields a lot of images that aren’t him, but the ones that are display a range of disparate emotions. 2) I remember he had a slight speech impediment. Or at least I think he did. 3) At the very least he would adopt this kind of funny voice when we’d get to one of Harrison’s many locked doors, saying “No more locked doors.” It’s loaded with meaning now, but at the time it was a funny quote from Next Friday (I had to look that up just now). 4) I remember sitting in the computer lab with Jamar and some other students. I was at the computer to the left of Jamar, who was so jazzed about the upcoming release of Li’l Wayne’s Tha Carter II. There was an innocence in how giddy he was that makes everything that happened since all the more tragic.

Or maybe it’s everything that happened before. Others have written better than I could about the conflicting forces pulling Jamar in different directions, using safe and unexamined phrases like “troubled past,” and that’s fine, but what are the forces outside of oneself that cause one to end up at a high school where no one is assigned any papers? Or, if we take that as our starting point, if we’re really honest with ourselves, what kind of outcomes do we expect for someone coming out of such a system?

Or, to really put all of my cards on the table, given the value that we as a society have (or have not) placed on this one life through our education system alone, whywouldn’t I expect that he would be murdered by police*?

And the news cycle continues, and it isn’t long before a former colleague from another district is sent to the hospital after trying to break up a fight in the cafeteria. People ask me, “what’s going on over there?” and I opine, letting myself get fired up about how district policies that lack restorative practices create an unsafe environment for everyone. “The thing is,” I attempt, “I feel as badly for those kids as I do for that teacher.” They look at me aghast. “How do you get to a point where that’s okay? Where did we fail?” They don’t know. Neither do I.

And then another headline. Another former student, this time part of a violent crime spree one fall night that included credit card theft, home invasion, and murder. I remember this student well, too. His hands trembled and he had long fingernails. His attendance was terrible. He may have been on house arrest at one point and worn an electronic monitoring device on his ankle. I remember watching him flirt with a girl in the gym, calling her “Shawty,” smiling wryly. Better than his nickname, I suppose: “Poopy.” I remember we had to watch him closely in the gym, something to do with his heart.

I read a statement in the newspaper that he had given to the police when charged, stating that “only intended to do robberies and that he was upset that people were getting killed,” and I guess I believe it. I also believe that it doesn’t matter, that his fate is sealed, and maybe was long before that night.

And the thing I absolutely don’t know how to explain to non-educators in my life is that, in truth, I have no idea what to do with any of this, but I move on because I have to. I write this post. I think about how I’ll supplement Native Son when I begin teaching it next month to include a challenge of privilege and a pedagogy of resistance. And I hope like hell that the news will give me a little peace, because I have plenty more Jamar Clarks I’m worried about.

*I want to acknowledge that it took me the better part of a week for my feelings to coalesce around this issue. Having written angry poetry in the wake of Treyvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Sandra Bland’s extrajudicial killings, I would have thought I’d know exactly how I felt if something like this happened in my city, to someone I knew. But I waffled. I offer that because our human reactions to things like this — things I suppose none of us should have to deal with — are very complex. The politics of proximity, I guess. The other day a friend referred to Jamar saying “sounds like he was a piece of work,” and I bristled, explaining that I’m too close to the situation to say that. But like so many of us, she was trying to make sense of the senseless, and that’s where she ended up. It’s complex.

There Are No Bad People

I’d like to someday understand violence. It is, at its core, an illogical, chaotic force, but also one as old as humanity itself. I look upon the examples of non-violent heroes such as Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, among others, and I’m inspired. On the other hand, as a rather emotional human with a Y chromosome, I’m familiar with the aggressive tendencies that come along with testosterone. I see it in my toddler son as he winds up to hit me while upset. Years ago a friend, transitioning from female to male, recounted how unnervingly aggressive the testosterone made him feel. Like most of us, I would much prefer a world without violence, and find its inescapability guiling.

At the turn of the most recent century, I lived in a home in Minneapolis’ East Phillips neighborhood. The neighborhood was blighted, to say the least. A pimp named Yellow lived two doors down, and it was unclear what else was going on in that house. Even so, my roommates and I were all fairly idealistic, all under twenty-five, and somehow established a détente with Yellow. I mostly felt safe walking around that neighborhood at any time of the night or day.

Eventually I moved to Chicago and got married. My wife and I lived in Pilsen, a neighborhood groaning from the early stages of gentrification. Still fearless, I walked with impunity, my biggest concern the role my white skin might be playing (or seem to be playing) in the shifting of the traditionally Chicano neighborhood (“but my wife is half-Mexican!” I imagined myself explaining).

Parking in Chicago can be an interesting experience. Beginning at our apartment, I would drive in concentric circles, taking the closest parking spot I could find, often blocks away. Such was the case late one night when I was coming home from work. I quickly discerned that I had positioned myself between some gang members (possibly the very same who lived in our building) and the police from whom they fled. I wondered what would happen if one group started shooting.

Eventually a variety of factors brought us back to Minneapolis, where we rented an apartment in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood, just south of East Phillips. I remember taking long walks into the Powderhorn neighborhood years before, marveling at how much safer and more stable it seemed, how much more beautiful and well-maintained the houses were. Powderhorn had been the dream, and now we were there.

One night we were returning DVDs to the Hosmer library. It was a warm autumn night, maybe ten o’clock or so, a time we often walked the neighborhood to talk about our dreams and aspirations.

Chalk it up to the nice weather, but things seemed kind of electric that evening. That’s a difficult thing to explain. I’ve worked in public education for ten years, and know that things often feel electric in a building right before a big incident like a fight. It’s maybe a skill that is cultivated over time, like a dog that can be trained to recognize a seizure before it starts. Mine was not yet cultivated.

On the way there we passed by two kids, one on a bike and one on foot, making their way somewhat aimlessly through the neighborhood. At one point they stopped to ask if we had a light. We didn’t, and I didn’t think anything of it.

On the way back, those same kids appeared again, and however uncultivated my senses may have been, I could tell that something wasn’t quite right. Even so, we were closing in on our block, and so felt pretty safe.

Once on our street, I heard, “on your left.” It was The Kid On The Bike. I moved over just in time to receive a punch to the jaw that knocked me down. Before I could figure out what was happening, The Other Kid ran up, talking to his friend about the “burner” (gun) under his shirt. They demanded my wallet, which I freely gave. For my troubles, I was punched again, in the exact same spot, and they were gone. We were about three quarters of a block from home.

It’s worth noting that my wife, threatening as ever in a cute sundress and just under five feet (a point she’ll contest), talked all kinds of shit during the entire altercation. Luckily, she was completely ignored.

We called the police, received one of the blue cards that they give to victims of crimes, and waited. In the end, nothing happened.

Except for this little wrinkle: I was working as a paraprofessional at the time at a school for students with severe emotional/behavioral disorders (E/BD). I worked as a bus aide, too, riding to and from school with the students. I had moved since then, but the route was the same I’d had before, and mostly hit the same neighborhood.

One day about a year later, driving down Chicago Avenue, I noticed just how familiar the kid sitting across the aisle looked, and I put it together. He had been The Kid On The Bike, which meant that he had also been younger than I’d realized. Even so, his two punches had been enough to knock me off my feet, twice (seasoned fighter that I am), giving me a permanent dimple where previously there’d been none.

We dug around for the little blue card and contacted the police. A few days later we were informed that the county attorney had decided not to explore the matter further, citing just how much change can take place in an adolescent’s life over the course of a year. I understood the liberal thinking, but wondered if the county attorney knew that this same child was in a Federal Setting IV E/BD facility.

The cops came by the apartment anyway and gave my wife an array of mug shots to choose from. It wouldn’t be binding, they explained, but wanted her to choose anyway “for shits and giggles.” She correctly chose the kid who was my student, a kid she’d only seen a year prior on the night of the mugging.

I can’t understate the lessons I began to learn about myself and about human nature. The night of the mugging, after we ran home, my initial inclination was to get in the car and chase the kids down. The particular fantasy I was entertaining at the time, my brain flooded with adrenaline, was to open the door as I drove past and take them out with it. Sort of an update on jousting, I guess.

Once I realized who The Kid was, I had other violent revenge fantasies. These were none too complicated, but involved finding a small room in the school, locking The Kid in it, and beating the shit out of him.

But my moral compass, if trembling somewhat, hadn’t been knocked completely askew by his punches, and in the end my violent revenge fantasies remained just that. In fact, I didn’t let on that I had been his victim or knew anything about his extracurricular activities. For all I knew he robbed people all the time, and I was one of many anonymous victims (I’ve since discovered this to be true, as he’s been in and out of jail since for similar offenses).

Besides, I began to learn other lessons. For example, The Kid was kind of likeable, and I wasn’t really prepared for that. I’d be unlocking a classroom door or something, and he’d say “you dropped your pocket.” I’d look down and he’d be flashing a wry smile (it’s only now, in typing these words, that I recognize what I’m certain is the unintentional irony connecting pocket-dropping with wallet-surrendering).

If The Kid, who had visited an act of violence upon me that permanently altered my face and sense of safety, was funny and likeable, what did that mean about human nature? 

I don’t claim to be a sage, but I think I have arrived at an answer all the same: there aren’t bad people, or good people, but people who make choices, who do things. Maybe some people make better choices and do better things, on measure, than others, but are those people uniformly good? Of course not, and neither is anyone else uniformly bad.

That makes logical sense, but to really live as though you believe it can really fuck with whatever convenient categorization you’ve previously utilized.

Anyway, there was another lesson, this time about revenge, or consequences, or justice. I’m still not entirely sure. One day we were pulling up to The Kid’s house. I’m not sure if the bus driver had been irregular in her pick up times or what, but The Kid’s mom was at the door in a brightly patterned mumu, shouting something about how if The Kid missed one more day of school he’d have to go to jail.

This was to be my second bus epiphany: I realized that, no matter what had happened previously or did happen in the future, The Kid’s life sucked, plain and simple, especially when compared with mine. I tried to tell myself that this was my revenge, that here was justice, but I can’t get there. I maybe find something like peace in the ability to move past the incident, but the circumstances of The Kid’s life, then and now, continue to sadden me.

I’d like someday to understand violence. I doubt I’ll ever get there. In ten years as an educator, I’ve seen students beaten by each other and by police. I’ve had students who committed murder and students who died by gunfire. I don’t understand violence, but I do have The Kid to thank for my understanding of human nature. I hope that I can use that lesson to disrupt cycles of violence.


On Infertility

What follows is an essay I wrote about two years ago. I've tried here and there to find a home for it since, but to no avail. It is extremely personal, and so it bothered me to not have it out in the world. I still hope that it can someday find a home beyond this blog, which I suppose is what I hope for all of my writing, but this one especially. In the meantime, here you go.

On Infertility

I’m in a busy diner during the lunch rush, waiting for a friend to finish paying. I’m struggling to manage the weight of my infant son’s car seat. He’s not terribly heavy, but the seat is tricky to maneuver in tight spaces.  It’s pouring rain outside, and I’m trying to remember where we parked when the restaurant staff start doting over my son.

To be fair, he’s adorable. We share no biology, something I’ll expand upon in a moment, but suffice it to say that I can take no credit for his incredible cuteness. Let’s be honest, there are some funny looking babies out there - luckily, we were able to dodge that bullet.

For most of my marriage, I wasn’t sure I wanted kids. It wasn’t a tough decision to make as we were usually broke.  If we were going to have kids, it would have to be when we were financially secure enough to swing it; if that never happened, we could take all of that extra money we didn’t have in the first place and do a bunch of traveling. Either way, it seemed we’d be able to find a happy outcome.

But then I got the bug. You hear about this happening to people, but it sounds so trite, like an eleven-year-old-girl back from her first baby-sitting gig. And even though I cried during The Notebook, I still somehow thought I wasn’t given to such emotional frivolity. If we were going to have kids, it wasn’t going to be because I was a total sap.

Turns out I was wrong. All it took was seeing dads and kids at Target and Home Depot, and I was gone. I’d see these tiny people, barely up to their dads’ knees, teetering along, slowly, deliberately. And they were holding hands with Daddy.

I was stricken.


My wife and I soon began trying. This was a revelation for me: despite what you may think, trying-to-conceive-a-baby sex is some of the silliest sex there is. In place of passion, spontaneity, and romance, are pressure, obligation, and a foreboding sense of timing.

It becomes rote, and both of you are aware of how strange that is, and maybe feel guilty about it, but still, the show must go on. And then you try to change it up, and next thing you know, you’ve got blankets spread out on the bathroom floor (which really sounds so very disgusting in retrospect, but isn’t sex kind of gross to begin with?), but the sink is running because it’s cold outside and the pipes are frozen (!) and halfway through you’re both getting splashed in the face with sinkwater, and who can take any of that seriously at all? Not the guy who’s complaining about the cramp in his back, I can promise you that.

As it turned out, all of our trying was in vain, and so eventually I went in for a test. In an interesting twist of medical nomenclature, what could have been dressed up in jargon, couched in all kinds of Greek and Latin prefixes, is instead called by the somewhat undignified moniker of “semen analysis,” probably to avoid giving the mistaken impression that there would be any self-respect happening anywhere in the process.

The office was decorated in dark oak and oriental rugs, something like an alpine hunting lodge.  This overt expression of masculinity struck me as incredibly transparent, rooted in the idea that men in my position might need some sort of testosterone-based reinforcement. But just because I could see through their design choices didn’t mean that I was immune to the inherent discomfort of my situation. I’m a teacher, and I had a colleague covering my classes for me (“I have a doctor’s appointment…”); could I face a room full of high schoolers when this was all over?

A nurse led me back to a small room.  She was older, maternal, in the gruff, all-business way of so many older, maternal women. The room’s main feature was a reclining lounge chair covered in coarse medical paper, but she also made sure to let me know about the fertility-friendly lubricant that wouldn’t mess with my count, the dimmer switch “for mood lighting”, the pornography in the cupboard, and where to put my sample when I was done.

I would have given anything to be trying instead.

A few days later I got a call from another nurse.  She said that volume of the sample I produced looked good, the motility (movement of the sperm within the sample) was also good, but there was a problem.

There was a problem, yet her voice was so detached from the gravity of this news and the effect it was having upon me.  She would, I supposed, have more of these calls to make that afternoon, piled up in the days to come for as long as she cared to imagine.  

But there was a problem.

Conservatively speaking, she explained, there are usually at least fifteen million sperm swimming around in one millileter of ejaculate – occasionally even ten times that number.  Mine had sixteen.

“As in, six more than ten?”

It turns out that’s what sixteen means.

People will tell you that “it only takes one,” and, you know, I saw Look Who’s Talking, I know how it works, but on a line graph with 150 million on the top and zero on the bottom, sixteen is effectively zero.  All those “it only takes one” optimists might as well buy me a Powerball ticket while they’re at it – I’d spend my winnings on reproductive surgery.

I hadn’t expected this news. I was devastated. I walked the dog, shuffling through a gray day in my neighborhood, trying to get my head together. I passed by the gas station, busy with customers, and was aware of how disconnected we all are from the problems of others.

I think I knew that there were options available to me, I just hadn’t expected to need them, and wasn’t sure yet how I felt about them. More troubling than anything was the overwhelming knowledge that I had no idea what I was going to do.

The next day I was in a meeting at work and counted seventeen people in the room. One more than sixteen. My stomach was in my throat. Of course, it was a strange analogy to make, English department to sperm count, but that’s where my head was. At least there weren’t fifteen million, I guess.

The doctors encouraged me to go see a specialist. This proved to be problematic; my wife and I had been operating on a somewhat specific timeline, one that was predicated upon academic and professional responsibilities. We now found ourselves working within a rapidly closing window of time, and the specialist scheduled appointments two months out. After months of charting temperatures and mucus quality, and all that overwrought sex, this was a new level of anxiety I hadn’t anticipated.

And don’t think I can’t hear you, clucking away about the folly of trying to plan something like this down to the letter, how no one can control these sorts of things. I get it, I do, but the way our professional and academic lives were structured, it was going to be really awesome to have a baby during months A, B, and C, and infinitely more difficult to do so during months X, Y, and Z.

I realized that I had even fewer options than before, compounding my disappointment. I felt lost. Any move I made seemed to negate other, plausible-seeming moves. Seeing the specialist meant waiting an indeterminate amount of time for a baby. Not seeing a specialist meant not knowing what the problem was, effectively shutting down the family line. These facts, all of them new and unforeseen, required resolute action, a deliberate strength of purpose that I was decidedly lacking.

My wife, an excellent internet researcher, hit the trying-to-conceive message boards and pregnancy blogs, and the occasional real-deal medical website. We read about a couple who had struggled with infertility, ultimately settling on the mantra “baby in the house.” We took it to mean baby in the house by any means necessary, and hadn’t this been my goal from the beginning? This mantra was so simple, so obvious, we adopted it as our own. I felt very near to having the clarity I’d need to make a decision.

At this point, we also stumbled upon a probable cause for my near-sterility. When I was an infant, I had a hernia. I grew up hearing the story about how I was blue from the legs down, like a Smurf in reverse.  Our working theory, although never confirmed, is that when the doctors went in to fix me up, they may have accidentally snipped this, knotted that, and given me the inspiration for my upcoming children’s book, Daddy’s Tangled Apparatus. I was relieved to have something resembling an explanation, especially one that made so much sense.

Working on this assumption, we decided to pursue a sperm donor. More on this in a moment, but first I’d like to acknowledge that we were, in fact, working on an assumption, a theory, which was, in fact, never confirmed.

I think many people find this to be a reckless decision, like I gave up and quit on myself. Who knows, right? Maybe I could have been untangled, reattached, or otherwise had my fecundity restored. And I don’t want to be cavalier about this at all – it was an incredibly difficult decision to be sure. There was a lot of insecurity and second-guessing.

But my goal was to have a baby in the house, not to cultivate a biological legacy. Allowing that goal to really take primacy over everything else was very liberating, once I got there. Given the choice, I would have preferred not to have any infertility issues, but that preference didn’t seem worth putting my goal on hold indefinitely.

Not only that, but we have a lot of gay friends who are starting families.  Same-sex parents have no choice but to begin with a donor of some sort, and I’m not sure how productive it is for the non-biological parent to lament the lack of shared DNA once the baby arrives. Any self-pity others would foist upon me seemed strictly a function of straight privilege.

We began to research donor agencies so that we could begin to research donors. I was, of course, grateful for the chance to become a father at all, but less so when presented with the opportunity to pay thirty-five dollars for a silhouette of a potential donor’s face in profile.

Even so, there were some humorous moments in the selection process. Despite being a run-of-the-mill white guy, I have been told my entire life that I look Asian. The agency’s computers agreed – we submitted pictures of me in order to produce a list of potential donors whose offspring might resemble something I could create. The first guy on the list was 100% Chinese, the second 100% Vietnamese. Of course.

In the end we picked one whose heritage a little more closely aligned with our own, and after lugging liquid nitrogen tanks around from the garage to the trunk of the car to the doctor’s office, success! When my wife walked into the bedroom with a positive pregnancy test in her hand, it was the happiest moment in my life up to that point, and one I’ll never forget.

During the pregnancy we talked some about how I might react when the baby finally came. His in utero name was New Guy, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t feel any less connected to him than if he were the fruit of my own loins. Still, we both knew that this was one of those big life things for which you just can’t predict a reaction. Not until you’ve lived it.

I’m happy to report that after a long and difficult labor, my son finally arrived, and when he did, I cried tears of joy like never before. He’s seven weeks old now, and while there are difficult times, reflux-induced sleepless nights, diaper blowouts and moments of self-doubt and insecurity, I have no misgivings whatsoever about my decision. Quite the contrary, the levies of my heart are struggling against levels of love and joy I could never have imagined. He is altogether mine, and I am his daddy, and like parents everywhere, biological or otherwise, the task now falls to me to be the best parent that I can possibly be.

When we were selecting a donor, my plan was to use a donor for the first child so that we could get our family started, and then later on get checked out and possibly repaired. Since my son has arrived, however, I am dead set against that course of action, and hope to use the same donor a next time. Part of this is because this baby is exactly one hundred times cuter than anything I might have produced, but also because I can’t bear to think of him wondering someday if I love him less than his sibling because of biology. What’s more, as much as I hate to think about it, I have to acknowledge the possibility that there could be a stronger connection to a child who shared my biology, and that’s not something I’m willing to risk. I love my son too much.

It’s a taboo topic, to be sure, tied up as it is in notions of masculinity, virility, and manhood, and this upsets me. I have never thought for a second that my low sperm count made me less of a man. I don’t bring it up during casual conversation at cocktail parties (“well, you know we had to use a donor because I can barely make sperm”), mostly because I imagine it would make other people uncomfortable, but a little bit I wish I could. I love my son, and I wouldn’t know him otherwise, and that’s why I’m proud that we chose to use a donor. I look forward to having lots of conversations with him about all the different kinds of families in the world.

But maybe the rest of the world isn’t ready. In the meantime, back at the diner, a member of the staff says “Oh, you’re just so handsome like your daddy.”  And of course I know it’s me, but I still can’t help myself.  I pick up the car seat, smile wryly, and whisper, “Who is your daddy, anyway?”