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Students in Missouri were enjoying the last few days of summer vacation when mass protests broke out in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. It was August, following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. Ferguson has become shorthand for long-standing racial frustrations in the region. For some teachers around St. Louis, it presents a chance to talk about race in a new way. Tim Lloyd of St. Louis Public Radio spoke with educators who are taking that opportunity.
TIM LLOYD, BYLINE: It was early September, and Vincent Flewellen had just wrapped up his day teaching at Ladue Middle School, in an affluent suburb about 13 miles south of where protests erupted in Ferguson.
VINCENT FLEWELLEN: I was really in a good mood.
LLOYD: But Flewellen knew he could be in for a difficult night. Less than four weeks had passed since Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson fatally shot Michael Brown, sparking countless protests. And Flewellen, who is African-American and in his early 40s, was on his way to an event for teachers at St. Louis University.
FLEWELLEN: To learn more about how to teach Ferguson - how to teach this whole idea of racial understanding and racial healing.
LLOYD: On his way there, he was waiting in traffic.
FLEWELLEN: Car pulls up next to me, driven by this middle-aged, older white man, who then takes his hand - his right hand - and reaches it across his passenger seat in the shape of a gun.
LLOYD: Flewellen says the man then aimed his index finger at him and cocked his thumb like the hammer of a pistol.
FLEWELLEN: Does that, like, seven times to me, and I'm just looking at him, like, in complete disbelief.
LLOYD: Frustration coursed through his body. Flewellen thought about calling it a night, but he didn't. He went on with the evening as planned, spending his time with teachers who want to untangle complicated issues of race and class. Fast forward about four weeks and he's standing in front of his multicultural studies class. He turns to a whiteboard where today's topic is written in big, blue letters.
FLEWELLEN: Ferguson, we're going to continue on with our conversations about race and racism in Ferguson.
LLOYD: He then asks students to pair up and talk to each other about how they think life experiences might differ between white and African-American residents. Miriam Sokora and Alivia Brock are sitting next to each other.
MIRIAM SOKORA: Like, I've never thought that I would be walking down the street and get pulled over by a police saying, like, what are you doing?
ALIVIA BROCK: As for me, I have to look around the street all the time since I'm black. I got to walk around the street and look for police officers and sometimes I even have to, like, put my hands up a little bit just to show I have nothing.
SOKORA: I think that's sad.
LLOYD: Flewellen says facilitating this type of conversation between his students helps him make sense of his own wounds.
FLEWELLEN: I think you either become bitter or you're determined to bring about change.
LLOYD: But not all teachers are ready to take on issues of race and class.
BRIAN HUTCHISON: These conversations will become uncomfortable.
LLOYD: That's Brian Hutchison, who teaches at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. He's been helping area schools figure out what to do when students bring up Ferguson in class. Hutchison says some teachers just want to change the subject.
HUTCHISON: It's a buffering mechanism so that we don't actually have to talk about something that's difficult.
LLOYD: But the topic isn't being ignored at Riverview Gardens High School. In the school's library, 60 teenagers are taking part in nonviolence trainings put together by the King Center. Many students in this school live close to the shooting site. As part of their final exercise, they form small groups to talk about what could happen if a grand jury chooses not to charge the police officer involved. Senior Elantra Jackson has a strong opinion.
ELANTRA JACKSON: I'm not going to lie and say that, like, everybody's just going to be, like, oh, OK. 'Cause there's going to be some damage done to the city.
LLOYD: To be clear, Jackson says she has no intention of taking part in any kind of violence. But many students here think Wilson should be indicted and facilitators asked them to plan a nonviolent response to whatever the grand jury decides. Bernice King is Martin Luther King Jr.'s youngest daughter and has visited here four times since the shooting. She considers each of the students in this room to be ambassadors for nonviolence.
BERNICE KING: I mean, my father was angry. We call it righteous indignation. But he channeled that anger into something positive and constructive.
LLOYD: And as the St. Louis region awaits the grant jury's decision, administers at the school hope this training will help both students and the community handle whatever comes next. For NPR News, I'm Tim Lloyd, in St. Louis.
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