The Dylann Roofs I Have Known

In 1996, I assigned my class to read an essay by an African-American author and came face to face with racist resistance.  When I saw the arrest of South Carolina Dylann Roof for the killing of nine people, I recognized that face from many I had seen in my own classroom.

During my second year of teaching at a rural school in eastern Kentucky, I announced one day to my English class we would be reading Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When The Other Dance Is the Self.”  As the class turned to the essay in their textbooks, I heard a snort in the back of the room.  I looked in that direction and saw Jason, shaking his head, then slamming his textbook shut. I walked over and bent down next to his chair.

“What’s wrong?”

“I ain’t readin’ that n—r lit.”  His tone was even, calm, dispassionate. 

“Come outside with me, please.” I rose and left the room. Jason followed. When we got in the hall, I shut the door, and he leaned against the lockers.

“What did you say?” I said.

He repeated it.  The hall was empty.  I could hear the art room down the hall bustling with activity.

“Jason, this is 1996. That language is completely inappropriate in my classroom.”

He looked at me finally, level and stoic. Then he shrugged. “That’s just the way I was raised.”

Last week, when I saw Dylann Roof’s red-rimmed eyes staring back at me from his mug shot, I thought about Jason and a dozen other students I’ve encountered who have looked at the world through the narrow, unexamined lens of racism, isolation, and suspicion.

I teach in another school district now, but I still live in the same county, a place where racial divides have been present throughout history.  In 1964, as the county school system sluggishly moved toward integration, the African-American school was burned down along with the African-American Masonic hall.  The arsonist was never caught, and the district finally integrated in 1965, one of the last school systems in Kentucky to do so. Today, a glance of the high school parking lot reveals a half dozen pickups  with rebel flag license plates, and the annual fall festival held each year downtown hosts booths selling guns and Dixie paraphernalia along with fried pies and peanut brittle.

Jason didn’t read Walker’s essay, even though I attempted to draw him out with several conversations about the topic. After he graduated the following year, I lost track of him until about ten years ago. I’ve seen him around town, working for the city.  Even though Jason didn’t become a mass murderer, I thought of him—and all the other students like him—when I saw Roof’s picture.  I still feel as though I failed Jason by not doing more to challenge and broaden his worldview.

As a high school teacher, I am aware how entrenched 18 years of cultural and familial beliefs and practices are in my students. I’m not convinced I could have changed Jason’s mind, but as a teacher, I am called to participate in what a former colleague calls, “the constant labor of democracy.”

In a free nation, schools have an obligation to be a moral force as well as an academic one, and teachers are on the front line in the struggle to demonstrate the principles of peace, reason, grace, community, and open-mindedness.  

Here are seven actions that all teachers should agree to act on without reservation.

Address racist, bigoted speech immediately.  Hate speech, and the ideology from which it comes, is insidious.  Name calling, joking, and bullying cannot be filed under “kids being kids.” Ignoring racism does not make it go away; it makes you a collaborator in the discrimination.

Be explicit about advocacy and safety. Safety, both physical and psychological, is a prerequisite for learning.  All students – the bully and the victim alike—must know you will ensure their safety and protection. A classroom is a microcosm of the larger democracy, a place where all voices have a right to be heard and all viewpoints can be considered in a safe and respectful environment.

Educate yourself and your students about social justice.  I recently attended a Holocaust Educator’s Network seminar, sponsored by The Memorial Library of New York.  One of the sessions centered on the Pyramid of Hate, a high school lesson developed by the Anti-Defamation League and Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.   Such tools help students apply the lessons learned from the Holocaust and other genocides to their own schools and communities.  Teaching Tolerance, the educational arm of The Southern Poverty Law Center, is another great resource for teachers.

Pull the fringe kids inside the circle of light.   Young bigots are bred in repressive, unquestioning places: in prejudiced homes, in isolated and homogeneous neighborhoods, maybe even in quirky religious sects. Bring these kids whose ideas put them on the margins of society into the mainstream with non-threatening conversations and reflection.

Provide an outlet for reflection.  Isolation is the cauldron in which disaster boils. Reflection is often an underutilized tool in the fight against hatred.  Reading and writing on the topics of social justice, diversity, and family, religious, and political values can prevent the alienation that further isolates and radicalizes the bigot.  Turn kids on to the language and literature of power and beauty in relation to their own lives. Give them time to reflect on their tiny world as merely one brief location in the vast expanse of history.

Teach rational thought.  By modeling open-mindedness and fairness, you serve as an antidote to the polarization kids see in social media and hear on talk radio.  Teach students how to analyze two opposing viewpoints, how to thoughtfully dissect an argument, how to become independent thinkers, and how to effectively work together for solutions.

Maybe none of this would have stopped the rage that led Roof to kill nine African-Americans. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade, further isolating himself in a culture of drugs, racism, and hatred, but we must continue the fight.  If, as Martin Luther King, Jr., stated on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol, that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” we teachers must always be passionately and tirelessly doing our part to bend that arc.


  • Jennifer Cox

    Instructional Coach, KY

    Thank you, Liz, for this poignent reflection about our roles as educators to engage students in safe conversations around race and social justice. For too long, educators have thought it "enough" to be color blind and silent about these issues yet, we find ourselves in a different time with different needs. Powerful post for sure!

  • LizPrather



    Thank you for your comment.  And I agree – silence can be as damaging as the speech and actions of a bigot. It takes all of us every day. 

  • BillIvey

    Thank you for all of this.

    I also want to share the “Check Your Bias” resource, which I first learned about from #educolor (itself a great resource). It encourages people to take the implicit racial bias test, reflect on the experience, learn about racism and implicit bias, and encourage other people to do the same.

    • LizPrather

      Great resource!

      Thanks, Bill – what a great resource. I will be using this test.  

  • Brenda Fairchild

    Thank you for the insight!

    I am also an educator who attended the Holocaust Educator’s Network seminar. Words and actions matter, we as teachers need to try to brake through the racism, hate, and prejudice to try to open our students minds. Thank you for your blog!



  • Gerry Lantz

    Angelic writing and actionable thoughts


    You continue to impress with your words and clarity of thought–and so much humanity.  Was thinking of your brilliant writing the other day and now I run into this wonderful piece by you. Thank you for fighting the good fight where it still may be possible to win–with young people.  I am distressed that someone so young was so calcified in hateful beliefs and acted on them so violently.  Thanks for offering actionable steps that lead to inclusive solutions and open dialogue.

    Keep putting pen, heart and mind to paper.


    • LizPrather

      Hearts and pens together


      Great to hear from one of my favorite storytellers!  It is heartbreaking to hear the rhetoric of hate come out of the mouths of students who haven’t had an opportunity to see the world and to figure their place in it. “Calcified” is the perfect word.  They are hardened and aged and deadened by it.  I’m committed to chipping away at that, pouring on the goofy light, loving them up, and hopefully convincing them to loosen that tight fist they are shaking at the world. 

      Love and light to you and Jean!

  • akrafel

    Religious Intolerance

    In my neck of the woods, it is not so much racial intolerance, but relgious intolerance of those who are not relgiously conservative. When comments are made in class that show that intolerance to other student’s views, I feel I must engage and present the idea that not everyone belives that same thing about God.  For some students, school is the first place that they encounter people of other faiths and creeds. I try to get the students to see each other as fellow humans, as individuals who deserve kind and respectful treatment which includes listening to other points of view on the history and place of many faiths. I shocks me sometimes how closed minded even children can be in casting others as one thing only, “unbelivers”, that is all they see. It cuts off their ability to see eachother as fellow travelers through life. It is my responsiblity to weigh into these conversations to express a more inclusive idea. I get in trouble with parents sometimes for doing this. Thank you all for moral support in being a champion of humanity, kindness and respect.