A Teacher’s Story

Veteran Philadelphia teacher Frank Burd tells his own story about the violence that plagues Philly’s schools, the incredible support he received from the community, and his ongoing fight to recover

My kids weren’t threatened by my touch. Sometimes, jokingly, I would walk right into a kid’s face and say something.

“Mr. Burd, back up,” the kid might say.

“I like being here,” I would say.

“You’re too close to me,” he would go on. Of course, he wouldn’t back up. That would be backing down.

Sometimes he would say, “What are you, gay or something?”

“Maybe,” I would answer, with a big smile.

Usually that gave the kid an out if he did want to back up. But most times, I would back up just a little bit. “Is this enough?”

“Come on, Mr. Burd,” he would say.

You can’t teach this stuff. It comes from the heart. It comes from loving your kids. And yes, my students were my kids. Even the ones I struggled with were mine. In their own way, they wanted to be in my classroom. Though I might say outlandish things, they felt safe in there. And one other thing — they knew that their being black was never an issue with me. They let me talk about racial things, and I opened the door for them to talk about them, too. They learned about me and being white. I learned about them and being black. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes trust, and it takes time.

I remember one day, when I was talking about a staple in my diet, one kid said, “Ramen noodles? That’s our food!”

“Hey,” I said. “They are a staple in a poor teacher’s diet.” The kid was shocked to hear that even white people ate ramen soup.

When I was in the hospital, many people tried to turn the issue of my assault into a racial one. I kept telling them it wasn’t. I kept telling them how much love I felt from my students and the black community at large. It was a black student who ran down my assailant. It was a black student who supported me in the hallway until help arrived. It was a black student who picked up my phone from the floor and dialed 911. Sadly, what the public saw was two black students who put me in the hospital with serious injuries.