Between periods one Thursday on campus, a passing girl, giggling, labeled Stephan’s booming articulation and cadenced strut “cocky,” as his hood hung halfway off his head. “It’s because of how I carry myself,” Stephan explained. “Higher standards.”
As he spoke about life in St. Louis, that awareness of the plight before him traced back to when Brown was gunned down. Stephan was 9. After the shooting, his parents sat him down to have “the talk”: When approached by law enforcement, “You do what’s necessary to come home, you say, ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘No, sir.’ ” Afterward, several recent experiences with the police came into focus. He’d witnessed two police home raids as a third grader, months before Brown’s death. “I was a little shocked that the police would do something like that, because I thought these people were supposed to be our protectors,” he recalled. Now, with “the talk” front of mind, he wondered, “What would have happened differently if they would’ve thought that I was somebody else, and I’m just a kid, and they opened fire.”
Another encounter with police cemented the reality of growing up Black. In eighth grade, he was hanging with friends close to their block in Pasadena Hills, a middle-class neighborhood and one of 24 municipalities served by the Normandy school district. “An officer came over there and was like, ‘I got a call. Do you guys stay around here?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, we stay on the next street.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, what’s the name of the street?’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, OK.’ ”
With such confrontations, he’s learned that to be Black means “we’re at a disadvantage,” he said. “But at the same time, we also do have an advantage. It’s kinda like duality. We have an advantage because we have scholarships that are specifically for poverty-stricken Black students, like for full rides. So we have the resources, we just have to go look for them. But at the same time, we’re at a disadvantage because of all the stuff that we’ve dealt with for like the last probably bajillion years — we’re not enslaved anymore, but we still are.”
Conflicting narratives continue to swirl around Brown’s death. That August day, as he walked with a friend from a convenience store, an officer stopped them. Some say the officer was the aggressor. Others, testifying before the grand jury that ultimately decided not to indict the police officer, said Brown initiated a scuffle. Media coverage at times painted the teen with stereotypes. But that’s not how Foster, who taught Brown in seventh and 11th grades, remembered the “silent leader,” who turned 18 three months before his death. “The kids listened to him,” Foster said. “I don’t think we realized the magnitude of how [his death] affected our students.”
Brown had started in the Normandy school district at Pine Lawn Elementary in special education services because “he had some struggles,” his mother, Lezley McSpadden-Head, told me. When she later moved out of the Normandy area, Brown pleaded, “ ‘Mom, I just really want to go back.’ ” McSpadden-Head allowed him to move in with his grandmother, who lived five blocks from Normandy High.