Saint Mary's School Blog

Laura Grantmyre
Laura Grantmyre, Ph.D.

Each and every one of us sees the world through a lens that has been shaped by our own experiences, and if we really listen to each other with curiosity and compassion, we can start to see greater complexity in our world. One scene in our summer reading novel, Piecing Me Together by Reneé Watson, really demonstrated how we might experience the same situation differently. The novel centers the experiences of Jade, a Black junior at a predominantly white private school in Portland, Oregon.

In the scene, Jade and her friends, Lee Lee and Andrea, are walking through North Portland to Columbia Park. On their way, they see something that terrifies them. Jade explains,  

When we turn the corner, just ahead of us, about a block away, we see a police car, its lights flashing. 

We stop. 

White cops have pulled over a black woman. We walk closer. Stop at enough distance not to be noticed but close enough to be witnesses.[1] 

This moment ties back to an event earlier in the novel that also left Jade and Lee Lee shaken: the police in Vancouver, Washington assaulted a Black fifteen-year-old named Natasha Ramsey, leaving her hospitalized in critical condition. 

The woman Jade sees on this day drives away safely from her encounter with the police, but the moment has a profound impact on Jade and her friends. Jade describes, 

I hear rattling, something like crumpling paper. I look to my left and see Lee Lee’s hand is shaking. Her whole arm is having a fit. Her fist is clenching the bag like an anchor to keep her from falling to the ground. I tell her, “It’s okay.” I take her hand, but she pulls way. “It’s okay, Lee Lee. Come on. Let’s go.” 

Lee Lee looks at me like she heard me but didn’t understand me. [2]  

This scene struck me because when I was a junior in high school, my reaction to the police would have been very different than Jade’s. As a white, middle-class teenager who grew up in the suburb of Cary, North Carolina, I was raised to see the police as protectors. It did not begin to occur to me that people could have different experiences of the police until I saw the now historic video footage of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King in 1991. King was a 25-year-old Black man who was beaten by police so brutally he ended up hospitalized with a fractured skull, broken bones, and permanent brain damage. King’s beating was recorded and broadcast on news channels across the U.S. I remember the white adults around me decrying the brutality of the beating. However, blame was also placed on King for resisting arrest and the officers involved in the beating were dismissed as “bad apples” in an otherwise just system. I heard similar reactions to the protests that erupted in Los Angeles when a jury from suburban Ventura County found the police officers who beat King not guilty in April 1992. The violence King had experienced faded from conversations as the adults around shifted their focus to the property damage caused by the revolts in Los Angeles.  

Because I lived a racially segregated life, the only voices I heard that challenged these perspectives came from popular culture. Hip hop artists like Public Enemy and Ice-T and films such as Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing pushed me to imagine the world from a perspective other than my own. As I got older, I interacted with a more diverse array of people and gained a more complex understanding of how race, social class, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality have shaped people’s interactions with the police. I criss-crossed the country on Greyhound buses and had long conversations with sorority girls, sailors, church deacons, and metalheads. I hung out with the Black and white men who loitered outside the Legends gay bar in downtown Raleigh and asked them about police harassment. I took elderly drag queens out to lunch and listened to their stories about being Black, queer, and beautiful but also bullied by the police in the 1960s. I also had a long conversation with a white police officer about law enforcement’s role in society and listened to a Black police officer describe her evolving relationships to her own neighborhood. These conversations gave me a nuanced understanding of the rage that has driven protests in response to cases of police brutality like Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this spring.  

Everyone is the protagonist of their own story, and, honestly, there are limits on how well we can truly understand each other’s lives. Sometimes when I am standing on a crowded street corner or driving down a busy highway, I think about all the people who are passing by me. Each one of them has a lifetime full of joys, fears, and quirks that I will never even begin to understand fully. That thought used to make me sad, but now I see it as a source of hope and boundless curiosity. 

The same can be said for the Saint Mary’s community. When we are not living through a pandemic, we gather each Monday in Pittman auditorium for our weekly assembly. In that room, we have students from international cities like Shanghai, China, Kigali, Rwanda, and Hanoi, Vietnam sitting next to students from big U.S. cities like Atlanta and smaller towns like Turkey, North Carolina. We have an incredible opportunity at Saint Mary’s to learn from each other’s diverse experiences, but too often we miss the chance to truly understand each other’s stories. Maybe we fear that we will sound stupid if we ask questions. Or, maybe we worry learning about experiences and ideas different from our own will invalidate our own experiences and ideas. However, what if we focused on what we could gain--not just understanding of a new perspective but possibly a new friend? 

The world is filled with chaos and conflict right now, but we can build a safer and more compassionate world. First, though, we need to imagine what that would look like. If Jade’s story in Piecing Me Together was set twenty years from now, what would we want it to look like? I would want Jade to live free of fear and free from harassment—both from catcalling men and from racially-profiling salesclerks. Luckily, Reneé Watson, in her infinite brilliance, gives us a roadmap for getting there: speaking our truth and listening to each other.

Jade’s relationship with Maxine and the Woman to Woman program is a great example. When Woman to Woman’s programming and Maxine’s behavior alienate Jade, she has the courage to speak that truth. She calls Maxine to hang out and once they are in Maxine’s car Jade shares,  

It feels like Woman to Woman takes us to all these places outside of our neighborhood, as if the places in our neighborhood aren’t good enough . . . . When you invited me over to have dinner with your family . . . it felt like you just wanted to use me to get at your mom and prove some kind of point to her. Like you were showing off. You didn’t even let me speak for myself.” [3]  

To Jade’s surprise Maxine really hears her. Maxine acknowledges her mistakes and apologizes saying, “I’ve got a lot of learning to do. I’m so sorry I hurt you in the process.” Best of all, she asks Jade, “So what are some things Woman to Woman can do better?” and follows through on Jade’s ideas. Jade’s courageous honesty and Maxine’s openness and compassion make Woman to Woman a much more inclusive and effective program. By following their example, we can make our school community and our world stronger, safer, and more compassionate for everyone.    

Laura Grantmyre, Ph.D.
Instructor of Humanities and Social Sciences
Recipient of 2019-2020 John U. Tate Teaching Award

[1] Renée Watson, Piecing me Together (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 208.  

[2] Watson, Piecing me Together, 209.  

[3] Watson, Piecing me Together, 176.