I sat, my ass baking on the hot asphalt, staring up at the skyscraper that housed the bureaucracy I protested. Shadows of faces pressed up against the glass, faces attached to bodies who claimed to work for students, but went weeks, months, before seeing students or setting foot on a school site. I wondered what they did in that building all day.
When you’re a new teacher, you don’t really know what you’re doing. In my first year teaching middle school English, I had to make sure my eighth graders could write an essay. Any students who could not, would not move onto high school. The stakes were high, so I prepared, and we read and wrote and discussed every day, and all of my students moved on to high school. But the student I remember most from that year was Jorge Carpio.
It was a warm spring day and the sky was unrelentingly clear. Beads of sweat dripped down my back as I sat in the middle of the street listening to LAPD. I’d signed up for this. Over the first few years of my teaching career, I watched schools shift from being over-crowded and tough, to under-enrolled and barren, depleted by charter schools and shifting urban demographics. The district’s response to this abandonment of our public schools was not to lure families back by reframing a positive story of our public schools or to thin out the bloated bureaucracy. Instead, they touted school choice, approved more charter schools, increased class sizes, and laid-off teachers en masse.
Our teacher’s union planned escalating actions in response, and I sat on the front lines of this movement. When a one-day strike was organized, I signed up for civil disobedience. Yes, I was willing to be arrested for this. The loss of educators hurt students, schools, and public education. So, even though the one-day-strike became a one-hour work stoppage, I sat with colleagues in the street across from the district’s administrative headquarters downtown and blocked traffic. I refused to disperse when ordered, and watched as police in riot gear looked on at our peaceful protest. I was told that if I remained, I could be subject to arrest or other police action, which could lead to significant risk and serious injury.
Jorge Carpio was smart. In the eighth grade, smart almost always leads to smart-ass. It was spring, and the end of the year was just around the corner. On our weekly vocabulary test, Carpio got creative. He was a good writer, so the first time I read it, I graded it. He used all of the literary terms correctly. He started each sentence with a capital letter, ended each with a period, and spelled everything right. But then, about halfway through, I let the content of his sentences sink in. I don’t have the test anymore, so I can’t give you any of his actual sentences, but each one twisted on a different and unique way to hurt, maim, or kill me.
He scored 20 out of 20.
I laughed as I graded it, because I didn’t think Carpio would hurt me. But this was a couple of years after Columbine. Bright signs plastered the walls of every classroom: THREATS ARE NO JOKE with the outline of a handgun, so we would never forget. Even though I wasn’t scared, I felt obligated to take the quiz to the principal.
The next day, I signed Carpio’s check-out papers, and he finished the year at a neighboring school. It wasn’t what I wanted. I didn’t need Carpio kicked out of my class or transferred to a different school.
As officers in riot gear surrounded our group of protestors, I felt the heavy hand of the LAPD. Because I am a light-skinned woman, barely passable as a person of color, because I am a public school teacher in a “good” part of town, my interactions with the police are minimal. But some of my fellow educators were Black, Latino, and male. I wondered if they were thinking about Rodney King or the recent Rampart Division scandals. I wondered if they were scared.
One by one, the officers applied plastic zip-tie cuffs and loaded all of us onto a bus. They drove us to the Little Tokyo Station and it was there, waiting in the parking lot, that I peered out a smeary bus window and recognized a face.
A couple weeks after Carpio was transferred to another school, he came to our culmination ceremony to see his friends walk the stage. I told him I was sorry about what happened. He said he was the one who was sorry, what he’d done was stupid. He’d learned a lot. I left the interaction feeling like maybe kicking him out of our school had been the right thing to do. Maybe this incident helped him grow up.
Carpio didn’t look different. Some students become unrecognizable. They bulk up, grow beards, become grown-ups. But Carpio basically looked like the same kid who had once written a vocabulary test that threatened my life. He stood with his fellow officers, drinking water, walking around freely, while I sat, cuffed on this bus. Invisible.
I had to get his attention. “Carpio,” I yelled out the open window. “Officer Carpio!”
The teachers around me stared, I told them, “He’s a former student of mine.” We laughed. We were all teachers. We run into former students in unexpected places. I didn’t tell them the story of Carpio’s vocabulary test and transfer. I didn’t tell them how strangely the roles had been reversed.
He came over to the bus, recognized me, and said, “I was wondering if I knew any of these teachers.” It didn’t surprise him that I was there. He was friendly enough, and then he went back to his work (which appeared to involve a lot of standing around, watching the day unfold.) Carpio knew how this system worked. I had taught him about it the day I turned his vocabulary test over to administration. That was when his learning began, and now he was part of that system. The day of my arrest was the beginning of my education in our criminal justice system, but Officer Carpio was the expert here, and he offered me no special assistance.
The wheels of justice turned slowly that day. First, we waited for the men to get processed. Then, the women were loaded back into a van and transported to a facility in South LA for booking. It was there I felt I could disappear, that just about anything could happen to me, that my body was all I had, and that too was at risk. I didn’t eat. I didn’t drink. I didn’t want to go to the bathroom.
I had been told they would take my belongings, so I didn’t carry a cell phone or a wallet. They took my ID. They took my shoelaces. They took my glasses. We were held, made to wait, and in a world of blurry rooms with locked doors, and thick-paned windows. We waited in bench-lined cells with toilets sitting out in the open, and even though I was certain I would go home, I didn’t know when.
I occasionally caught glimpses of Officer Carpio. Each time I thought not just of Carpio, but of other students, students who got cited for skateboarding on sidewalks, for truancy, for drug possession or intent to sell. I wondered if they were brought here, to these cells where the food was the same food they served in our school cafeteria, where you were told to wait, and if you followed instructions things would be easier. But mostly, you were left to wait, not knowing how things would turn out.
We waited. There was nothing else to do.
I was hungry and tired, but also frustrated. This was arranged civil disobedience. Why weren’t they better prepared? Why was it taking so long? I tried to breathe, but even the air felt canned and dirty. I wanted to keep it together, so I didn’t complain. I made no demands. I sat with the privilege of my civil disobedience.
But what if I had been falsely accused. What if I, like Sandra Bland, had been pulled over for a minor traffic violation and somehow found myself in this cell? What if I was not me? What if I was Black, or male, or Black and female, or Latina and poor or undocumented? How would this system see me?
I had signed up for this, and my reasons had nothing to do with the school to prison pipeline or the mass incarceration of our youth, our students of color, but they should have been. This system was not all that different from the school system I was a part of. I was not that different from Carpio who was doing his job just like I had been doing my job when he was an eighth grader in my class so many years ago.
Ten hours later, Carpio released me. I went to the bathroom in private. I ate a sandwich, which I immediately threw up. I made my way home, and responded to a few text messages and emails from friends who wondered how I was doing.
There was a Facebook request from Officer Jorge Carpio. I accepted.
Jorge had been my student, but he, along with the rest of the LAUSD and LAPD bureaucracy, taught me about the power of the State. I broke the law, willingly. I was subject to the power of that State, and in those few hours I learned a tiny bit about what it must feel like to live in fear of that power everyday. I am not subject to such supervision, but many of my students, former students and their families feel the power of the State every time they leave their homes, every time they walk down the street, every time they drive a car, every time they set foot in our schools.
As a teacher, I am the power of the State, and instead of signing up for civil disobedience because of teacher losses, maybe I need to do more about how I use this power at my school and in my classroom. I have to resist the system that employees me and is supposed to serve them.
Our public schools continue to struggle for funding and support. Students show up, although in diminishing numbers, and the bureaucracy and power of the State remains strong in our schools and on our streets. Young people of color continue to be victims of life-ending violence at the hands of police and subject to systemic abuse in our classrooms. They fear humiliation, violence, and deportation every single day. We have work to do. I have work to do, and it involves much more than teaching English. People say educators shouldn’t bring politics into our classrooms, but every day I have to stand up for what is right, because if I don’t, I am just another cog in this system. I’m just another brick in the wall.
Noriko Nakada writes, blogs, tweets, parents, and teaches middle school in Los Angeles. She is committed to writing thought-provoking creative non-fiction, fiction, and poetry.