Orleta Holmes: ‘I cannot afford to lose lives’

Orleta is a fifth-grade social studies teacher at Ignite Achievement Academy at Elder W. Diggs School 42.

As told to Shaina Cavazos

I’ve been a teacher for quite some time now, and I have a strong background of Black women who were activists in their own right in specific issues in the community.

My grandmother, she was a teacher in East St. Louis for a long time, and when East St. Louis was becoming segregated, she started marching and campaigning and protesting so that her students could get books. She was hosed, she was bitten by dogs, she was arrested — she still has the bite marks of the dogs on her ankle and the marks of the water hose on her back.

Seeing her pass on her love for education and teaching, it just drove me in the direction of helping people. This is going on my second year at Ignite, and it’s one of the most Afro-centric schools I have ever seen. At my previous school, they felt like I was too Black — that I talked too proper for a Black woman, and that I was intimidating because I spoke up for my students of color. All Ignite wants to do is uplift the community it is housed in, and I’m so appreciative of that.

The faces that I’m looking at remind me every day not to judge them. The faces that I’m looking at remind me every day that there’s trauma that I don’t know about. The faces that I’m looking at every day remind me that “I’m here, sometimes because I have to be, but honey, I’m here so don’t waste my time.”

One of my students was shot six times. When the story hit the fan, I wept because that is one where the consequences were just too great. I cannot afford to lose lives. I cannot afford to lose attention. That’s the armor that I put on every day that prepares me for the warfare that is learning. I have to make sure that when I close my eyes each night, that I have taught them something that they can teach someone else.

The things that they face are real. The trauma that they endure, it’s so real that it has become comfortable; it has become what they expect, and it has become all they know. It’s my job to lead you to the gateway, to seize more than what’s right in front of your eyes. I take that challenge seriously every day.

One thing I will have to watch out for and be mindful of is there’s a new trauma. They literally saw a man being lynched right before their faces, and they see it over and over and over again. How do you teach a kid who still has that in their brain? How do you fight through that and still show the hope and the love and still empower them to live compassionately?

To everyone, challenge your administrators to let you be culturally relevant — because what on earth are they doing if they don’t? None of us are the same, and if we’re not cognizant of that, if we’re not understanding of that, if we’re not trying to be more open-minded, how will we teach? I can’t teach somebody I’m scared of. I can’t teach somebody I think is less than me.

I challenge all educators to educate yourselves and understand you do have biases. Deal with them. Don’t teach them to your students. Use that voice and use that power to continue to be good and righteous for your students and your families.

We’re featuring each of the 11 Office of Education Innovation 2020 Teacher of the Year finalists. Look for new features throughout the summer and fall.