Grappling with a tragedy

June 18, 2020

Students and teachers alike were hit hard by the news of George Floyd’s murder, and social media and the city streets erupted not long after. In Brookline, the school community affected change and banded together through online vigils, shared resources and discussions.

On June 3, a vigil was held via Zoom to commemorate Floyd’s life. It drew students, faculty and community members alike. Dean Jenee Uttaro, who played a major role in organizing the vigil, stressed the importance of addressing the news as a community, rather than individually.

The Zoom vigil for George Floyd, held on June 5. According to Dean Jenee Uttaro, “we had more than 400 people on the Zoom, the Youtube got 400 views that day, it was on 3 different channels. There’s no way to quantify how many people saw it, which is kind of cool.”

“I was pretty significantly impacted by what happened, and even before cities across the country began reacting, it hurt so deeply as a person of color to feel that,” Uttaro said. “It’s hard to capture all of the emotions that come up because of that. So it was a selfish move for me in some ways, because I felt like I needed to do something more than just be sad.”

According to Uttaro, the event took a week to put together with the help of students and staff. She said the goal was to recreate the sense of communal space that the high school loses by being in remote learning, and that being online came with its own unique advantages.

“If we were in person, we would’ve organized and offered affinity group sessions in the MLK room, whatever spaces we have where we can convene, and we would have been face-to-face and talking about this,” Uttaro said. “Not just students of color, but all of us.”

Efforts to bridge that distance have been implemented following the George Floyd murder. Spanish teacher Lindsay Davis tried to bridge that gap by sharing a choice board of resources with all students during the vigil, which has since been posted to the high school’s website. According to Davis, she prioritized personal listening and learning before putting together the board.

“What I think people often do is they’re quick to share things immediately, without really sitting and reading. To avoid that, I spent Saturday in my bedroom, from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and I was like, ‘I’m just going to shut up and listen,'” Davis said. “I watched the videos and read the posts, and tried to think about what I could post to my white students that could be actionable, and then for my Black and Brown students, what would feel restorative and empowering.”

Spanish teacher and Advisory Co-Coordinator Emily McGinnis, who added to Davis’ board, said it was important for the resources to be varied in target audience as well as format.

“We’re trying to provide a wide variety of resources to students so that they can get what they need at that time,” McGinnis said. “We want to meet them where they’re at, but also push and challenge, so we really do need to provide kids a variety of resources for learning. We’ve put together those choice boards so that students can get themselves through that and then meet for discussions, whether that’s on Zoom or just on Canvas.”

Although the board presented students with the most important information, both McGinnis and Davis said that some of the community’s sense of togetherness was lost during remote learning.

“It just would have been so much more connected in class, and kids would have been able to see each other’s reactions,” Davis said. “To have a class with students of color sitting next to white students, the entire experience would have been so different, and I would have been able to support everyone in a much better way.”

Uttaro said that the community aspect is still critical to the school’s response, despite the disconnectedness of remote learning. She hopes that students are reaching out to their peers to bridge the distance.

“Something that would be helpful for students of color is for everyone to take a minute to think about what their own action should be, and how they can help in their own way. The choice board page has tons of resources on it for people to go educate themselves,” Uttaro said. “We need to continue to commit to educating ourselves, being allies and supporting one another in this. Try to get some insight into what it feels like to be a Black boy at BHS, what it means to be a person of color at BHS.”

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