It was a day in class that could have gotten lost. It could have been routine. It could have been filled with the next chapter of the novel or comprehension questions or vocabulary.

But it wasn’t.

This day was anything but lost.

My co-teacher, Lauren, and I work endlessly to cultivate a family within our students from the second they walk through our doorway as brand new eighth-graders. We layer lesson plans with journal entries and class discussions that may seem silly to the average teenage eye, but are meticulously laid out to reach a point where big things can happen.

And so we found ourselves where we find ourselves each year: in the middle of a racially-charged novel based around the true and horrific murder of Emmett Louis Till in 1955. It’s an emotional roller coaster that we willingly ride year after year because we know the magic that can happen when our kids meet truth face-to-face.

On this day, we opened the class up to the discussion of fear and the role it played in the previous chapter’s events. Students were passionate and insistent: There is no place for fear when it comes to doing what is right. Fear would not be a reasonable excuse for any injustice.

It was a justice rally. They said all of the right things, everyone on the same team fighting for rightness and bravery.

And then something happened.

Something really really big and brave.

Someone spoke up.

This someone had been a part of our family for the entire year. She had taken part in our discussions and grown with us and moved towards the blooming of our class. But she could not be silent here as she listened to her family members ignore the truths that she knew as a multi-racial student in this school.

“I disagree,” she said. And the justice rally stopped suddenly.

“I walk through these halls. I see you. I see your fear when you see me. I know that you’re afraid of people like me because I can see it in your eyes. I know that some of you talk about me and my black friends like we’re scary or violent.

And here you are talking about how fear should never get in the way of doing what’s right, and talking about standing strong for justice. You’re sitting here saying the right things, but I know some of you are afraid of me.”

The sadness and silence fell into every available space in the classroom. I imagine it came for several reasons. They felt her pain. And they knew she was right. And both were reason enough to do nothing but let it all sink in.

It felt right to sit quietly for a minute while we all felt it. Our teacher brains were quickly filing through every emotion–especially pride. We were so proud of her for saying the hard things that her classmates needed to hear. But we also knew we had the responsibility now to direct the discussion towards healing.

But we never had to. Because something happened. Something else.

Something else really really big and brave.

Someone spoke up.

This someone had also been a part of our family for the entire year. He had also taken part in our discussions and grown with us and moved towards the blooming of our class. And he knew what to do.

“I am not afraid of you,” he spoke into the silence. Every eye on him. His eyes looking directly into hers.

I am not afraid of you.

“I think you’re really cool,” he continued. “You make me laugh, and you’re smart, and I’m glad you’re here.”

I’m glad you’re here.

The healing fell into every available space in the classroom. We let it sink in.

And then little by little, truth came spilling out. We looked each other in the eyes and said things that needed to be said that maybe weren’t being said anywhere else. Lauren and I were teary-eyed and wobbly for the rest of the day in the most beautiful way.

Our class was different after that, because of her courage. I think about her courage often. Her courage to say the thing that would be hard for everyone else to hear. To say the thing that maybe not many else would understand, but to say it because some would and that is enough. To say the thing that might change everything that already was, because it might be worth it.

And I think about his courage, too. To listen to the thing that maybe he could never understand like she did, but to hear it anyway. To not leave her words and move on because it was easier. To speak truth to her pain, without consulting the consensus of everyone else, because it was his truth and she needed to know it.

I disagree.

I am not afraid of you.

I’m glad you’re here.

This is how the healing happens. These wise, wise, incredible humans.

The kids will save us, I’m telling you. And they will teach us how to save each other.


Kelly Cheney is an eighth-grade English teacher, mom of daughters, and major nail polish enthusiast. She would love to hear from you via email at or you can follow her on Instagram @kncheney-as long as you’re strictly interested in pictures of aforementioned daughters and/or nail polish.