ELKHART — Pam Hellwege first heard through Facebook that one of her former students, Michael Brown, had been shot and killed by a police officer.
Hellwege, who taught at Elkhart Community Schools for nine years before moving to the St. Louis area, had Brown in her art class during Brown’s freshman year at McCluer High School, part of the Ferguson-Florissant school district. She knows the racial dynamics of the area well, having taught there 20 years before retiring in 2013.
As a teacher, she saw plenty of prejudiced attitudes toward her black students.
When she took groups of her students on field trips it was common for them to be watched closely by guards and store clerks.
People seemed surprised when her students were well-behaved and polite, she said, even though they had no reason to think otherwise.
“They were black kids ... and that was the issue,” she said.
She doesn't want to talk about Brown — or any former student of hers — specifically without their permission, but she shared how Brown’s death is changing things for the small community where he lived. A community, she noted, that was not unlike Elkhart, when she taught at Elkhart Central, Elkhart Memorial and Pierre Moran from 1977 to 1986.
“Ferguson, I would say, is a lot like Elkhart in that it’s mixed racially and it is probably fairly similar in size,” Hellwege said in a phone interview Monday, Aug. 18. “People in Ferguson are just like the people in Elkhart. They are hard-working, normal people. This is not some crazy community in Missouri. There’s a lot of good people here.”
(U.S. Census Bureau information, by the way, shows the city of Elkhart’s population is 51,265 while Ferguson’s is 21,111.)
Yet this normal, racially diverse community is now at the center of a national discussion about how police interact with blacks — particularly young black males.
Why it happened
Hellwege isn't necessarily surprised that Brown’s death sparked continuing protests in Ferguson, even though she said the community is a quiet, safe place and people there don’t typically seek the spotlight.
She knows many young black students and the prejudice that especially the boys face saddens her.
As an example, she said that it’s normal for black parents in Ferguson to talk with their sons about what to do when they are stopped by the police in terms of “not if, but when.”
“There are too many (black boys) who are just wonderful, wonderful kids, who don’t deserve the look, don’t deserve being followed by a clerk,” she said. “They don’t deserve that. We need to, everywhere, have the conversation ... so people don’t look at four black boys in a car and see it as trouble coming.”
What could fix it
Hellwege sees three things that could help the situation in Ferguson and in other communities around the nation.
She believes every police officer should wear a vest camera, so when an officer-involved shooting happens answers can be found quickly.
She wants people to do some self-reflection and ask themselves, “What if I’m wrong?” regarding attitudes toward people of another race.
And she hopes for open conversations between police, residents and leaders in the community about issues that affect everyone.
“I surely hope that Michael was not killed in vain,” she said. “I hope that, since this sad event happened, that people can use it to make progress. It’s gone on for too long.”