“It is a hard time to be human. / We know too much / and too little.” Ellen Bass


Newly minted with my Masters of Divinity degree, I stepped into a pulpit before a dozen black faces. After reading from Romans, I launched into my six-page lecture sprinkled more liberally with Shelley and Keats than the Apostle Paul, and I’d not hit even the third sentence when an elderly woman, small and dark like a raisin, sounded out from the back pew like ringing a bell:

—Lord, hep him! Hep him, Jesus!

I’d come to find out that was Ms. Virginia. At the time, I just knew her voice got louder.

—He need you, Lord Jesus! Make it plain!


During the week I began substitute teaching at a high school located on the other side of the city from my seminary. I’d studied in historic brick buildings. I was surrounded by old trees in old neighborhoods paid for by old money. And big houses. I’d been to New Orleans to help with recovery from Hurricane Katrina. A colleague down there commented that she’d heard segregation was really bad in Richmond. I’ll make it plain: ninety-eight percent of these high school students were black. There were three white freshmen in the incoming class and four white teachers on the faculty.


I wore faded blue jeans and a Save the Children tie on the first day. A veteran teacher told me never to smile during the first month of school.

—Otherwise they’ll eat you for lunch. And believe you me, them kids is hungry!

Reading that Robert Frost road poem, I vaunted upon my desk like Robin Williams in that movie about the best teacher ever—you know, the teacher who changes lives forever!

A young man named Ishmael in the back of the class pointed at me when I climbed down:

—You think you smart, uh? You in the way.


This was the fall of 2008. I instructed each ninth grader to write her or his own I Have a Dream Speech. Though MLK holiday was months away, my contact at the newspaper guaranteed they would publish several, at least a couple of student responses. She emailed that they were eager to hear their voices. Only one favor: would I, as their teacher, write my dream for my students? Something about how I believed in them and hoped they would work hard to achieve their goals. I readily agreed.

But they only published one speech—mine.

You in the way.


When I was in ninth grade, all the freshmen boys applied deodorant under their arms before and after gym class. A few had the spray kind and they’d shoot you if you weren’t careful. We white boys tucked only the front part of our shirts into our gym shorts. Our tennis shoes squeaked on the hardwood floor. The backboards were glass, the nets nylon, the championship banners hung from the rafters. Two white guys made the team. Sat in the wooden bleachers. Girls jogged past in their short shorts, the outline of their bra straps visible underneath their white shirts.


During the fall semester of my ninth-grade year, we completed our daily worksheet to the sound of Johnny Cochran. When OJ’s verdict was read, all eyes were glued to the TV.

Not guilty.

Black kids erupted to their feet, pounding on desks. Boys were giving high-fives. Girls were hugging and shrieking. I sat dumbfounded next to Thaddeus Junior or TJ—the only other white student in the room.

I looked at our teacher. He sat behind his desk, as always, and leaned back with his arms crossed over his chest. I watched as his white face broke into a grin.


When the final bell rang, the celebration poured into the halls. Kids were chanting OJ’s name, banging on lockers, and throwing paper in the air. They were crying, hugging, laughing. I didn’t know where all the white kids had gone. I sped down the hall, rounded a corner, and—boom!—flew backward. My backpack cushioned the landing or I might have cracked my head on the floor.

Then I saw that De’Sean was reaching down. He was the star of the basketball team.

—I’m sorry, Ben. Let me help you up.

That’s not my name, but I took his hand.


In 1995, I watched OJ.

In 2009, I taught English to a ninth-grade class of all black students. Together we watched the historic inauguration of the first African-American President and together we threw paper into the air. There was crying, hugging, laughing.

I told them about OJ. I admitted that I couldn’t remember a single time when I saw a police officer on my childhood street. I shared my story about De’Sean, whose name I have not forgotten. I invited them to the front of the class to talk and prayed to God for help getting out of the way.


You remember Ms. Virginia? She was ninety-five when her mailman found her crumpled at the bottom of her steps. Miraculously, she hadn’t broken any bones. Her fall was blamed on a leg damaged from diabetic neuropathy. It had to be amputated—immediately.

I visited Ms. Virginia in the rehab. She was enthroned in her wheelchair.

—Lord Almighty, tell me some good news.

I searched for words profoundly reassuring and reassuringly profound.

—Come on now. Ain’t God good?

—Yes ma’am, God is good.

—And ain’t He good all the time?

—Yes ma’am! All the time!

—Well, honey, ain’t it good news?


I learned that Ms. Virginia loved tomato sandwiches.

—Honey, you ain’t need but two pieces of bread. Don’t need no meat, do you?

She wanted the 23rd Psalm and I hadn’t brought a Bible. I fumbled through the verses with her encouraging commentary:

—He maketh . . .

—That’s right, go on!

—He restoreth . . .

—Yes, thank you, Jesus.

—Yea, though I walk . . .

—I will fear no evil!

She did not want me to go. I promised that, next week, I’d bring her the biggest tomato I could find.

Ms. Virginia died two days later.


A black friend said my stories are about what it means to be white instead of Y’all, look at how woke I am! I am still learning, for we know too much and too little. I’ve heard that an amputated leg still itches in the night. The tomato grows on the vine in a wonder of water and sunlight. Ask and it shall be given isn’t magic from a genie’s bottle but like a shout from the pew: That’s right, go on! Yes, Lord, hep us! And Ms. Virginia added:

—Lord, child, we is all messes made on a miracle.