It’s 2 a.m. on a recent spring morning and a a group of 45 Middleton High School students met at the school to start a five-day trip to Washington D.C. Some were friends, many were strangers and for some this was the first time they were on a plane.
Freshman Timeya Smith couldn’t wait to get on the plane and “see Mt. Vernon.” Other students were nervous not knowing many other students on the trip, or never being on a plane before. People were tired, nervous, and had butterflies as they looked forward to getting to D.C. and having an “amazing experience.”
After a long morning, students and staff landed in Washington D.C. around 10:30 a.m., hopping on the bus, and hitting the ground running. First stop was the plantation of President George Washington, a massive estate for our slave-owning President. Students learned that he did free those he enslaved at the time of his death, but he couldn’t free Martha Washington’s, and neither could she. This became a powerful start to a trip comprised of mostly black students and other students of color, gaining a deeper understanding of the black American experience and the role black Americans played in building the United States.
Day two started off in a fitting manner, with a visit to Frederick Douglass’s Washington DC home which was quite the estate for a formerly enslaved human. Students learned Douglass’s role in pushing President Lincoln to start deconstructing the institution of slavery within the United States, as well as advocating for full human rights of all black Americans. Freshman Gabbi Butler said, “It was so inspiring to me how Frederick Douglas had represented himself. He didn’t let what other people thought about him impact the way he worked and his efforts to get things done. It really made me want to do as much as I could to ‘agitate’ and do what I believed in.” And the word of the trip was born, as Middleton School district staff member Percy Brown set the theme of “agitate, agitate, agitate.”
The impact kept ramping up, as the next destination was the Holocaust Museum. Walking in, better yet, herded into big industrial doors as an elevator takes you down. The doors open and pictures of burned and destroyed humans are there in front of you, unable to escape the tragedy that was the Holocaust. A timely visit for this group, learning and seeing familiar rhetoric from a charismatic figure, a cult of personality, leading a nation, and blaming the nation’s ills at the feet of a minority group living within it; dehumanizing this minority group and advocating for their removal.
Rest and relaxation after the intense day were needed and the group went back to the hotel.
The next morning, after a good breakfast of eggs, grits, yogurt, or waffles, the students slowly got onto the bus, still waking up from the night before. The students were on their way to the African-American History museum, a powerful experience, learning about something many schools in this nation doesn’t teach. See, it seems that in most school districts Black history is relegated to briefly covering enslavement, and a shallow view of the civil rights movement, with a brief, yet again shallow, expansion in February for Black History Month.
“It was so breathtaking,” Junior Ciara Smith said. “I was so excited to learn about my own culture.”
With Senior Hossam Said adding, “All the history in the Museum is barely taught in school which made me want to learn more about African American”
It left an impact on students, a deep one at that, and Ciara continued with seeing something that became deeply personal.
“I walked up to a screen and it was a video about one of the big social debates that happens in the black community like the light skins vs. the dark skins…That hit a nerve for me and I started crying because I go through that struggle almost daily. I get shut out from a lot of people because people just assume that I’m more privileged and stuck up because I’m biracial when I’ve gone through similar struggles that they have as well. I’ve been called a nigg** by people and my own family. Also I’ve had my hair pulled because us ‘mixed b*tches think we’re so much better than us black girls.’ This is a tough conversation to have, as being light-skinned does give privileges, but it doesn’t make hearing questions about your blackness from other black people any easier, especially when facing racism.”
Junior Peter Opitz was hit early on during the historical narrative part of the museum. “When I first walked into the historical section of the museum the dark ambience led me into a side room that simply featured 4-5 artifacts and a couple quotes on the wall,” he said. “But these weren’t just artifacts – they were the actual shackles that imprisoned an African forced onto a slave ship in the 1600s, the actual timbers from a boat that carried hundreds of people to a life filled with racism and violence in the ‘New World’. The pain and suffering displayed by these objects was indescribable, and I found myself speechless, unable to comprehend the emotions that I was feeling.”
Sophomore Taylor Smith gave a potent wrap-up of the experience and where we are in recognizing the contributions of African-Americans and what isn’t known.
“I learned that there were way more African-Americans behind everything from entertainment and Hollywood to fashion than what is put out to be,” Taylor said. “It made me sad yet hopeful that more African Americans pursue their dreams and not listen or pay attention to the negative things people say to bring them down. “
The not knowing your own history, the impact of your ancestors have had on the nation that gave birth to you can make one not realize something is missing, until they see how much has been erased or not known. To see what has been there and how much African-Americans added to every facet of society seems to be a powerful experience.
The next couple days were filled with seeing the monuments on Washington Mall, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History, the Iwo Jima Memorial, and other stops along the way. The students also were able to shop at a mall and let loose for a bit.
But, they also got a chance to engage in some conversations with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Senator Johnson and Senator Baldwin. They were coming with hard and fast questions, taking up issues of immigration, education, the failure of the drug war, and more.
With the highlight came with Senator Johnson, who has become notoriously difficult for his constituency to get a hold of. Peter Opitz said, “He would interrupt people, roll his eyes, and smirk at different questions which served to diminish the significance and intellect of the question. When he made comments that I don’t agree with, I found myself holding back from arguing with him, and I tried to respect him even though we don’t agree. It was hard to bury my emotions, especially when he seemed to dismiss many people as kids who don’t understand national issues. “
Perhaps one of the toughest rounds of questioning came when students brought up immigration and he started talking about crime among immigrants. “Ron Johnson kind of upset me because he blamed crime and associated crime with illegal immigrants when most of the illegal immigrants in this country aren’t involved in crime,” Peter said. “This country was built on immigrants whether they are white immigrants or minority immigrants.”
And the student is right, most immigrants are not involved in criminal behavior.
He also talked about how this group of largely students of color, should go directly into the “workforce” and not strive to go to college or further. Which contrasted greatly with Senator Baldwin and Congresswoman Schakowsky, encouraging the students to reach for their dreams.
The education of the world at hand continued in one of the most unlikeliest of places. After a filled day engaging on Capitol Hill, the students went to a home style, soul food buffet. The place was packed, there was another group there, Air Force ROTC service members were eating there, as well.
Then there was a commotion, a man who was going through a mental health crisis entered the restaurant and got a hold of a kitchen knife. Confusion and panic ensued, people poured out of the restaurant. Two chaperones and Middleton-Cross Plains School District employees got between the man and the students, one holding what may have been a broom handle and the other a chair, trying to subdue or get the man outside. Another chaperone was trying to get the students out of the back door. But this proved to be a difficult task. The group of mostly white and male ROTC service members rushed out the door, knocking over chairs, and pushing the Middleton students out of the way.
Gabbit Butler paints the scene: “I was scared. I mean most people were. At first, I had thought that someone was joking around when I heard someone say, ‘he’s got a knife.’ I went to go look and see what was happening and when I saw that knife my heart was racing and I didn’t know what to do. Everyone started running and screaming and heading towards the exit. I kept thinking why is this happening and why now. I thought that stuff could only happen in movies but when it happened it really opened my eyes to the real world.”
Junior Cierra Smith added about the ROTC group, “It made me mad that they pushed stuff in front of us. But one of the ROTC dudes pushed me into a booth and I hit my knee really hard. It made me livid that military trainees ran out on a group of kids and didn’t help us. I feel like if it was a group of white kids they would’ve done everything to make sure they were okay. But that’s just the world we live in today.”
Some of the students have been in similar situations before, but many haven’t. Waking them up to the unexpected of the world around us, and the disappointments from those that are supposed to stand for this nation, but leave people of color behind.
Many lessons were learned and much impact was had. That dinner marked the last night in D.C. The students got together to debrief, not just from that event, but for the entire trip. The word “life-changing” was passed around the circle. Gabbi Butler said, “I felt like I left with more knowledge about my culture and about who I am and who I wanna be. I felt like I really opened my eyes and I saw reality and I knew that I want to make something of myself.”
Freshman Bridget Garamendi talked about how the experience as a group was powerful, saying, “how all of us as a group came all the way to Washington to learn about ourselves and how it made us realize that we need to work together as a team. In school, we are not learning about us; we are learning about white people’s stories”
Many were thinking how much they learned on that trip. Hossam Said said, “When we were learning on the bus when I was talking with Mr. Brown about history it opened my eyes in school: we don’t learn any of this yet we learn about American history is it not American history?”
“I learned way more about my own history than any textbook could show,” Sophomore Myia Carroll added. “The textbooks would only talk about slavery and that is not the only thing black people did. Also how in history there were black people who weren’t slaves and who weren’t just the statistics.”
Through all of the events, Percy Brown would get on the microphone on the bus and add depth of knowledge and history, with myself helping as well. Antonio Hoy would jump on and teach about how to represent themselves, their family, and the school district, to teach how to engage in a world that doesn’t fully see their humanity. Rainey Briggs provided clear guidance and knowledge of going through tough times in life and how to persevere, the will that is needed as students of color. Marisha Ash brought the definition of Black Girl Magic, helping build relationships among people that didn’t know each other, and helping guide a group of brilliant young women.
But the students learned that change is made through agitation, that learning is made through agitation, that growth is learned through agitation. They grew, they agitated, and they deepened their understanding of how to agitate.
Gabbie Butler summed it up nicely saying, “I feel like I have so many people that understand me now and share my culture and ideas. I feel like I can be myself and engage with this new community of people. It also made me aware of the people at my school and I know to get my voice out I need to agitate.”
Others agreed that their approach to their community and in school will be an approach of agitation.
Educational experiences like this, especially for students of color, are groundbreaking and eye-opening. Helping them discover who they are on this long educational journey. It is initiatives like this that often go unnoticed and unknown to people and speak to the need to not just improve our curriculum in school, but access to opportunities and initiatives that target black students and other students of color.