Editor's note: This piece has been updated with a longer version than the original.
My friend, Kris Olson, is a fifth grade teacher at Monte Vista Elementary in Albuquerque, New Mexico. If you know anything about New Mexico, you’ve probably heard that, sadly, we are ranked the 50th worst state for child well-being. That means the worst educational opportunities, the worst health outcomes and the worst family and community environments as they relate to children’s needs.
Our teachers are often overwhelmed by the needs of our children – hungry, sleepy, poorly clothed and sometimes traumatized children - that show up on their doorsteps each morning to learn. And still they teach. But in addition to teaching, our teachers must seek out clothing while they should be free to teach. In addition to teaching, our teachers must gather up food for our hungry children to take home (sometimes to their cars/shelters/hotel rooms) while they should be free to prepare tomorrows lessons. In addition to teaching, our teachers often have to seek out the needed social services for a child and her family while they should be grading papers or meeting one on one with a child who needs extra tutoring.
In the midst of this chaos, and it is chaos, our teachers here in New Mexico show up day after day and do the very best they can to educate our children in this unstable environment. One of those teachers is my friend, Kris. Last week we were visiting over a cup of coffee and just catching up on one another’s summer adventures and discussing the upcoming school year. In the midst of this, Kris shared with me that she had attended the candle-light vigil at Bataan park for Trayvon Martin and how deeply that experience had touched her.
Kris told me that a few days ago, in preparation for school, she decided to go to Chama to clear her head and have some time to reflect before going into the classroom with her new fifth-graders. While standing on the platform with many others awaiting the Cumbres and Toltec train, Kris said she noticed two gentlemen that walked up with these cowboy style hats on. She said she just noticed them because of their hats. A few minutes later, another young man standing nearby pulled a hoddie up and as he did one of the men in the hats said to him “are you pulling a Trayvon on us?” and then laughed. Kris said that she was infuriated by this comment and, because of her participation in the candle-light vigil days before, simply couldn’t stand by and let that comment go. She walked up to the man and said “Sir, I don’t know where you’re from, but you’re in New Mexico now and we don’t think what happened to Trayvon Martin is a joke.” The man responded by laughing at her.
Kris, however, was soon to be amazed. Others on that platform gathered around her and began to say to the man in the hat “She’s right – you’re in New Mexico now and we don’t think what happened to Trayvon Martin is a joke!” Kris’s action inspired total strangers to rise up and stand with her. Our children in New Mexico are desperate for inspirational leadership from not only their family and teachers, but from their community leaders and legislatures both local and in D.C. When their families cannot provide for them, they have nowhere else to turn, but to us.
My daughter was so blessed to have Ms. Olson as her teacher last year - a teacher with such courage and clear convictions that she can inspire total strangers – folks she’d never met before and probably never will again – into standing up and responding to such a malicious statement. We’re all stronger, as the folks that supported Kris showed us, when we stand together. Thank you, Kris Olson, for your courage to act and thus inspiring others to do the same! May your story translate into the inspiration we all need to have the courage to stand up for the most vulnerable in our midst.