The Story of Mark + Sam

Almost 2 years ago, I was sitting next to my youngest son’s kindergarten teacher at our local high school’s football game. Sam’s teacher had taught our two older sons in Pre-K and in kindergarten as well. (She still feels much more like a member of the family and we love her and know her well.) We were just catching up on life and cheering on our team. Susanna said, “listen, Rebekah, I need to tell you that Sam (then age 5) has made a really special friend in our class so far this year.  It’s a new friendship. I don’t think you know his family, and I think you need to get to know them because this friendship is really important to Sam. His new friend’s name is Mark.”

Fast forward 2 years, Mark is still Sam’s best friend. We are lucky that they were in the same class again this past year. Sam is our exuberant youngest son. He is a great athlete, a great student and a sweet friend to his peers (and I am biased.)

Initially, he explained that his friendship with Mark was built over their shared love of football and their ability to throw a spiral toss back and forth in kindergarten. Then, Sam explains that Mark is the smartest kid in their class and the nicest kid, too. 

When I look at Mark, I see the most beautiful boy. The thing I love most about Mark is how he makes our Sam light up inside and what he means to Sam. Sam always wants to see Mark, be near Mark and invite Mark to dinner and have Mark over to play. Always… These two little boys are planning their first jobs together, their second jobs together, where they will go to college and their back up universities in case they don’t get accepted to their first choices. I hope they will be college roommates. Mark and Sam have very big futures. 

Mark’s parents are an amazing couple and their little family, including their older daughter, have captured all of our hearts. They are good people, really good people. They inspire me to be a better person. They are better people than we are. As I have come to know their family better, my attention is repeatedly called back to one concern. I want to share these ideas that I worry about in hopes that they will resonate with anyone who reads this. 

Mark’s dad is Stanford educated and is a principal at a local charter school in Atlanta. Mark’s mom is Duke educated and shares an alumna with me as a Mercer University graduate, she is a consulting pharmacist at a prominent Atlanta hospital. As I sit with them at dinner and on the bleachers at little league games, I am keenly aware of Mark’s dad’s bracelet that reads, “I am Trayvon Martin.”

This bracelet kind of feels like a swift kick to my stomach. I wish it wasn't true. The bracelet is gut wrenching and yet it is true. Here, you have this incredible  family and I wonder how amazing they would look to anyone reading this, outside of the context of people who know them. I am hoping you would see them as they are— incredible people. And, I am kind of counting on it. It means a whole lot to my family. It begs the question; how do we judge our fellow man? Not all of our kid's friends have parents like Mark's parents, and that's not the point. How do we perceive these boys as they walk down the street or cut through our yards or neighborhoods or at the train station or the grocery store or in a dark alley? 

It is really hard to believe that Trayvon Martin has been dead for 6 years now. He was murdered in 2012 as he walked back to his father’s home from a local seven eleven. He was murdered because he looked “suspicious” in George Zimmerman’s words. In the years since then, and as senseless loss of life has continued, with the victimizing of young black men, it causes me to pause and consider a lot of variables. There are countless stories like this woven into the thread of our country. 

As a 42 year old white woman, raised in the deep south, I want to believe that this isn't true. I want to believe we are better than this. That Dr. King's cries were heard and it is all better now. I want to have faith in our fellow man to see the good in all people and yet, I worry about the safety of my Sam’s best friend, Mark. I worry that as a teenager, donning a hoodie, you may not see how incredible he is. You may not automatically see him as the gifted student, athlete and the amazing friend that he is. You may not know that he means the world to us. Their young lives do matter immensely. 

Young Mark will resume his life and he will shrug off these risks as many young black men must, just to be able to focus on their lives and their futures. Their fathers, grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers will all live in fear and make plans to introduce their sons to local police and neighbors so you will know them and not just assume they are not incredible young men. Hoping that their boys won’t look “suspicious.”

I want to believe that African-American mothers and fathers don’t have to go to painstaking lengths to explain to their children the nuances of standing up for themselves and while simultaneously not getting into a situation where they could be beaten up or killed. Can you imagine that for just a moment? How do you explain that to a child? And yet, strong brown and black families have lived with this reality for generations and generations. I am no expert. Again, I have no idea how exactly to get this right, but I want to. I want us ALL to get it right. 

Do you care to?

What if we employed the idea of reconciliation? What if we valued young, black men? What if we lifted them up? What if when these boys walked in front of our houses, cut through our neighborhoods, passed us in a dark parking lot; what if we spoke to them with kind words and saw their humanity? In these moments of meeting these men and women as well, our biases are always on their minds. Trayvon Martin, known as “Tray” to his family, was absolutely exponentially more frightened than George Zimmerman was that night. Let’s not forget that George Zimmerman was armed and following this boy. 

Trayvon began to run as he could feel he was being followed. He was running home. What if George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin as the fellow man that he was? What if he had said, “Hi, how's it going?” as I often do when I see a young black man on the street. What if he had looked him in the eye? The whole narrative would have been changed. It would have all been different.

How can we change the narrative today? We have that chance, y’all. What if you speak? What if you make eye contact? I think there is reconciliation there. Even just a tiny bit.  I think it’s possible for white women to lead the way on this as we are able to see the injustices and also, society is mostly trying to protect us. Right. Yes. I said it. What if we were not afraid? We have the actual power to make a difference. We must make a difference. If you don’t believe me, Google this: “White woman calls police.” There are countless stories. 

If you and I try acknowledging these young boys and men, you will see what I have begun to see. It is the relief in the faces of these kind boys and men, who live in our country, to be seen as a person who is valued. Can we value these boys and men? Can we stop calling the police when we could be engaging and friendly and say “hello.”

The next time we see a young black man on the street, I would love it if you would think of Sam’s best friend. I do. I would love it if you would think of his mother. I do. I would love it if you would think of the tears she has shed while she sorts out the incredible nuances of trying to explain to her little boy how to be a remarkable man and also not get shot or have the police unnecessarily called on him. Because a policeman or woman who arrives in a bulletproof vest, who also lives in fear of his or her own life, will they see how incredible this little guy is? 

From where I sit, these are the tricky details that worry me. I humbly offer these ideas and realize that you may judge me for expressing them. I hope that these tricky details have caused you to think. I want us to all do better. I believe we can. Thank you for reading this far. These ideas are written with so much respect for our friends, and Mark's family, the Sanders family, and my thoughts are also written with their approval, consent and support. I hope it inspires reconciliation in the hearts of those who read it. 

Rebekah Vepraskas, LPC

Decatur, Georgia