The Civics Teacher Who Turned His Arrest Into A Classroom Lesson
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
There's a lot of power in a narrative in just hearing someone's story. So we're going to get this story started without saying yet what it's about. You'll understand as you listen to the story of a middle school teacher in Pittsburgh who wants to help students navigate a world of unwritten rules. He told his story to Erika Beras of member station WESA.
DENNIS HENDERSON: Manny, get over here and tie your shoes and tuck in your shirt, man. You look like you're falling apart.
ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: Dennis Henderson teaches geography, history and civics at Manchester Academic Charter School. He is black, as are 99 percent of his students. Eighty-five percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But Henderson doesn't just teach social studies. Eighth-graders Malajah Smith and Sharae Blair.
MALAJAH: He said you don't want to sound ghetto when you talk to people because people will think that oh, you're one of them black ghetto kids.
SHARAE: He tells us how, like, to stand up straight and how you shake people's hands.
BERAS: Henderson says it's important to hold his students to a high standard.
HENDERSON: The truth of our society - I mean, it doesn't matter how good you are at something - if you're African-American, you've got to make sure that you're extremely good to get the due recognition that you deserve.
BERAS: Henderson, who is 40, came to teaching from social work. Early on, he told his students if you study and follow my advice, the world will be open to you, though that doesn't mean it will always be fair, as he was reminded on June 26, 2013.
HENDERSON: It happened so fast - you know, nobody plans on getting arrested.
BERAS: Henderson was at a public meeting about improving community-police relations. Afterwards, he stood in the street by his car talking to a news photographer. A police cruiser sped by. Henderson yelled wow. The car stopped. A white officer asked if he had a problem. Henderson requested the officer's badge number and hit record on his cell phone.
(SOUNDBITE OF CELLPHONE VIDEO)
JONATHAN GROMEK: Stop playing on your phone.
HENDERSON: I'm allowed to do this.
GROMEK: No, you're not...
HENDERSON: I have every right to do this.
GROMEK: All right, you know what? Put your hands behind your back.
HENDERSON: Can you hold my phone for me?
GROMEK: Put your hands behind your back.
HENDERSON: Wow. Are you - are you all witnessing this?
BERAS: Dennis Henderson was charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing the road and resisting arrest. He spent the night in jail. Images of him handcuffed hit the evening news. Again, student Sharae Blair.
SHARAE: My mom said I just saw your teacher on TV, and I was surprised because I wouldn't think Mr. Henderson would be on the news.
BERAS: After calling his family, Henderson had to call his boss.
VASILIOS SCOUMIS: I just know his character.
BERAS: Principal Vasilios Scoumis.
SCOUMIS: And I know the kind of man Mr. Henderson is, so it was shock more than anything.
BERAS: The DA quickly dropped all charges. The city found that the officer had acted improperly. He was disciplined. So how has all of this changed Henderson?
HENDERSON: The reason I teach is a passion of coming from where I'm from and seeing the things that I saw. So all this, it was kind of amplified a little bit more.
WILLIAM: Well, it did change. It made it better because he had a experience with it.
BERAS: Student William Taylor.
WILLIAM: And I think that he can teach us more lessons because he had more of an experience than just reading about it.
BERAS: Today, Henderson is preparing Taylor's seventh-grade class for a mock trial competition.
HENDERSON: So you got this side over here, you are the prosecution team.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: What's that?
BERAS: After his students discuss their case, Henderson answers question and offers advice.
HENDERSON: What actually changes our society? What? Actions - actions where?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: In the courtrooms.
HENDERSON: In the courtrooms. You know, we could go marching and protesting and being as mad as we want. But until we actually have more of you guys working in courtrooms...
BERAS: Henderson's voice trails off a moment. Then he says change will be very limited, unless you do it on your own. For NPR News, I'm Erika Beras in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.