One evening last spring, my son packed his backpack for school the next day and sighed. “Mom, it’s weird walking around near my school,” he said. His somber tone made me afraid of what would come next—confessions of bullying, peer pressure, or, as had been reported about the eighth-graders, witnessing kids drinking or making out near the campus.
“Why?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
“All the white people move away from me when I’m walking to school. The white women grab their bags or cross the street. The only people who say hi are black women pushing strollers with white children in them,” he said.
At the time, he was barely five feet tall and weighed under 100 pounds. He was a 12-year-old in the sixth grade at a fairly diverse but majority-white middle school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Since starting there, he had been insistent about going to school on his own, a 20-minute journey from our home in Harlem. His father and I had set up a system: one of us would track his journey to school until he sent a text message confirming arrival. I watched the little dot that represents his movement along the city grid, but what that phone app could not show was the people he encountered along the way and how they treated him.