Story of Self

“One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes.” (Eleanor Roosevelt)

And this is what I subscribe to. Not wasting time arguing my point with words, but rather, making choices that clearly indicates who I am and what I am about. But it wasn’t always this way. Very early in life, I realized that I would never really get a chance to voice my opinion, let alone express my philosophy. And that my appearance, skin color, gender, and whatever current stereotypes that may exist about my “kind,” would always be first to speak louder than any words I could ever muster. So I stopped trying to talk over them and started to rely on the choices I made to anchor who I want to be and shout out my philosophy.

It may have started earlier than that, but Mr. Richardson’s Social Studies class was the first time that I remembered. I don’t think I honestly understood what Social Studies was because it was my first week in an American school, and only my second week in the United States. My mother explained to me that we were here because she had a case she was working on and that unlike other cases she has worked on before, this particular one was going to be a long case. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t leave us with dad and the cook and the house girl and the nannies like she had before. Or why Patricia, my older sister, couldn’t come with us. My sister whispered “ils son divorcé” to me when she hugged me goodbye before my brother, and I boarded the plane. I didn’t quite understand what that meant. What divorcé was, but knew that It felt a lot bigger than just a case. But since mother never left room for questions.

She told us to be, and so we were.
Here.
In America.
The only black child, sitting in a sea of white faces
Trying to keep up with a language that I understood better than I spoke
Trying to contain my anger because, in my country, the 7th grade doesn’t look like this.
And there was no need for a Social Studies class because we carried our history on our backs,
In our clothes,
In the books that we read,
In the language that we spoke,
In the faces of the educators that reflected us,
In our flag,
In the papita and the fresco that we ate after school,
In the camionette, we took to get home.
But here, in America, I was a black girl (country of origin irrelevant), who did not speak English well enough to earn the respect of my peers, but rather odd enough to be starred at, snickered at and pointed at.

And I know what you’re thinking. That maybe it was all in my head, that new places can be scary, and really the language barrier is what created a distance between them and me. Most days, I went home thinking and telling myself the same things. Well, actually, most days I went home crying, and my mother told me those same things.

But it didn’t matter because, on a fall day, I sat in Mr. Richardson’s class to learn Social Studies. And though I didn’t quite know what that was, Mr. Richardson told us it involved infographics. And as he placed a printed a transparent sheet on the overhead projector, he instructed us to figure out our chances of success in the American society based on proven research and studies. Thought I didn’t quite understand all of the writing on that paper, I remember pictures. I remember arrows that flowed from one square and one category to the next, and percentages and that at the bottom right corners of this transparent printed sheet was 100%. And your number belonged on the line right above it.

I remembered Mr. Richardson coming right to me, worried that I might not understand the directions he had just given to the class, decided to repeat as loudly and as slowly as he possibly could, the exact same words he had said to the class just minutes before.

CALCULATE. YOUR. CHANCES. OF. SUCCESS! START. AT. AFRICAN AMERICAN. THEN. FOLLOW. THE ARROWS. ADD UP (he gestured something with his hands). PERCENTAGES.

At that point, the class was looking at me, looking at him, trying to make sense of why he was speaking to me like this. And though I can’t be sure that they decided to calculate their chances of success, I am sure, that at that moment, they decided to figure mine.

—> Start at African American. I am not African. Collect my 20%.
—> Follow the arrow to Child of a single parent home. But I had a dad. Collect my 10%.
—> End at the arrow that says an immigrant/ child of an immigrant. Is that what I am in this country? And immigrant? Collect my 5%.

And while I calculated my results in my head, somebody from across the room had shouted it out for me; 35%! And hysterical laughter ensued from everyone in the class.

At that moment, it didn’t matter that my mother was a highly respected, practicing attorney with several degrees. That, in my country, I had all of the luxuries that money could afford. That I spoke and wrote and read fluently in two other languages. Or that in my country, in the school that I was enrolled in less than 3 weeks ago I was at the top of my class.

Because in 1999, in America, in brockton Massachusetts, in North Junior High, in Mr. Richardson’s social studies class, I became nothing more than an African American girl, from a single parent home, who could not speak English, with only a 35% chance of making something of myself in society.

And I bit my lips, warning the tears that had gathered in the corner of my eyes not to fall. Because my mother always told me to hold my head high and never let them see you cry.

And because Mr. Richardson responded with “ok class, let’s move on.” And they simply did.

But I never could.

I never liked school. And every time I graduated from a stage in my life, I vowed never to come back.

But 35% haunted me.

I chased after valedictorian and found it, and sacrificed sleep for Summa Cum Laude.

Because in my mind, settling for less was the gateway drug to 35%. And the worst that I could do was allow Mr. Richardson and his statistics to ever be proven correct.

So I married my best friend, in hopes that my children will never come to experience what life feels like in a single parent home. I chased degree after degree so that my knowledge and expertise in my field might overshadow and speak louder than your stereotypes and statistics of me.
And, as an educator, I challenge my colleagues to think about the last time they communicated to a student that they only had a “35%” chance to succeed With your actions. And inactions. With your words, or with your inability to get past what other teachers or society have told you about who these students are. And never giving them a chance to tell you, themselves, who they are and who they hope to be. To stop fearing those whom you are responsible for teaching and extend to them your respect.

I make it my mission to teach my students how to recognize racism and social injustices and speak out against it. And I lead by example. I remind the little brown and black boys and girls that I teach that they will always be more than an arbitrary statistic. That they must fight through the obstacles that seem never-ending and dare to dream. Because even if society has all of the odds stacked against them. I believe in them.

The Criminalization of Black Boys

I sat down to watch Ava DuVernay’s latest film on Netflix, When They See Us, and although I knew it was going to be substantial, I had to pause, walk away a few times, sit with what I had seen and heard to get through the four-part mini-series. The story of these five young men, accused of raping a woman (a crime they had not committed) took place a year after I was born. Therefore, I was not familiar with the story before watching it on Netflix. Nonetheless, It was not the fact that these boys were obviously racially profiled, abused by police officers, and accused of a crime they didn’t commit that disturbed me the most. But instead, it was the fact that as their story unfolded, I realized that very little had changed since 1989. Black boys continue to be targeted by the police and many charged for crimes they have no involvement in and did not commit. The policing and criminalization of black boys start while they are still too young to realize that it’s even happening.

    You would think that some would be spared by age, but as the film reminded us, the police do not care much for age or color. And no matter how young you are, if you are a black male, you are at risk of being accused, abused, and robbed of your innocence, like those 5 boys were. There were many more messages in that film than just the obviously stated fact that these men were wrongfully accused of a crime. Under the many layers of the story is the idea that the attack on black men starts In their childhood. And follows them for as long as they are alive.

    As an educator, I come across many different kinds of statistical data about the students I teach. None have been more alarming than the fact that although black students represent about 15% of all public school students, they account for about 39% of students who are suspended from schools. In general, black students are frequently and overly targeted for disciplinary action. In fact, black boys who are tall or big compared to their peers in their respective grades are more likely to be targeted and disciplined by teachers, administrators, and school resource officers. 

    According to a CNN article, published in 2012, police officers arrested a 6-year-old student in Georgia for allegedly throwing a temper tantrum that included throwing a small shelf that hit the principal in the leg. Not only did the police place the child in cuffs, but they also went as far as charging her with “simple battery of a school teacher and criminal damage to property.” In this instance, the child being arrested and charged is a little black girl, but it doesn’t negate the fact that the case is the same for little black boys as well. Even more so if the child happens to be big and tall for their age and grade.

    I remember a specific situation that took place at a school where I taught. While grading papers in my classroom after school, I observed some of the 7th-grade boys (who attend our school) talking to each other and joking while standing in the hallway across my classroom. They were supposed to be in a classroom participating in an after-school program. As they were carrying on, a staff member in the program approached them and told them that if they weren’t going to complete work, they should just go home. As she was addressing the boys, the director of the program approached (a woman who has hardly ever stepped foot in our school to oversee the program) and told the tallest and biggest black boy in the group that he needed to leave school grounds because he did not belong there. The young man replied, “what are you talking about, I’m a student here?!” And his tone and reply made director spiral. She started repeating over and over that she did not feel safe and threatened to call the police on him if he did not leave immediately. Naturally and understandably, the young man refused to, and when the cops showed up, I stepped in to deescalate the situation. I assured the police officer that the young man (who began to cry as soon as he saw the police officer) was a student in the school and did, in fact, belong at the school and more specifically at the after-school program. 

    Eventually, the police officer left, and the boy spent the rest of his time in my classroom talking and processing what had just happened. I think a lot about that evening and how the story would have unfolded if I wasn’t there to deescalate the situation. Would he have been forced off the property by the officer? Would he have been arrested? I approached the director a few days later about the incident, but she felt that she absolutely made the right call because she thought the young man “looked aggressive” and that the event did not warrant apologizing to him. 

    That is the world that we live in. Where a 7th-grade boy can be targeted and arrested while in school because someone else felt that he looked aggressive. Where boys can be targeted, arrested, and charged simply for being black and being at a park. As I watched When They See Us, that unchanging and undeniable reality then and now is what breaks my heart. I will never be ready to raise my little black girl and my little black boy in this reality.

An Open Letter to White Teachers

Dear White Teachers, 

Being “race-neutral” isn’t helping you. How about you try being culturally responsive instead?

Research has proven that students of all races need a culturally responsive education.  You do students a disservice by claiming to be “race-neutral” and not “seeing color” when you walk into your classrooms. 

I swear if I hear one more white teacher tell me that they “do not see color” when they walk into the classroom, I am going to lose my shit. You are lying to yourself. You do see color, your students see color, and the administration that runs your school sees color. 

And if you are wondering how you are guilty of seeing color, let me break it down for you. 

  1. You describe your black boys as “tough,” “aggressive,” or “defiant,” especially if they have a habit of questioning class rules.  
  2. You spend time in your classroom studying the Greeks and the Romans, but decide there isn’t enough time or space in the curriculum to explore Africa. Your class has several African American students in it, but you swear up and down isn’t racially biased. 🤔
  3. Your white students are all passing your course, but all of you students of color are either failing or in danger of failing.
  4. When your white student has difficulty reading a text, you draft an email to the Reading Interventionist. When your Black student has trouble reading a document, you email the Special Educator and recommend an evaluation to see if IEP services are needed.  
  5. When a white student has an outburst in class, you have a conversation with them about what happened. When a student of color has an outburst in class, they immediately get referred to the principal’s office. There is not talking about it after. They were just being disrespectful. Period. 
  6. You lower or raise your achievement expectations based on the race or ethnicity of your students.

The list can go one for a while. But the point of this post is not just to point out how you DO see color in your class and are (consciously or subconsciously) reinforcing institutional racism. The point is that the sooner you recognize that this is happening in your classroom, the sooner you can come to a place (mentally) where you can begin to do something about it.    

In the words of Glenn Singleton, “to serve students of color equitably, it is essential to challenge institutionalized racism and vigilantly reduce individual racial prejudices.” The key word here is vigilant. If you are unable to take a moment to personally reflect on the racial prejudices that may or may not factor into your decisions to kick a student out of your class, create your curriculum a certain way, refer students to be evaluated for outside services, etc. then you cannot take the necessary steps to begin to serve students of color equitably.     

So, what are you going to do to reflect on your own prejudices? And what will you do differently in your classroom and in your daily interactions with students of color?

What Teachers Owe

029FBA97-1E4B-49F7-9E98-78DE48254626A 14 year old boy sits at the front of his fifth grade class. This is his third try at this particular grade and second time with this particular teacher. He has grown resentful and cold. Being the oldest and tallest kid in the class has taken a toll on him. His anger is fueled every time his teacher calls upon him to read and with little to no friends in his class, he  has decided he will not learn from this teacher anymore. Eventually, they will have to let him move on. He is sure of this.

So how far is too far? Is this student suffering more from being held back or are we doing him a favor by making sure he stays back another year to try and acquire the skills he is missing? At what point is the teacher deemed accountable? And how do we hold them accountable?

While reading Better by Atul Gawande, I realized that medicine and teaching have more in common than I perceived initially. For example, both professions require individuals to make split second decisions, and both are a helping profession that seek human improvement. However, some key differences stuck out to me as well. One being that in some respect it is easier to hold doctors accountable for their errors than teachers. Short of inappropriate behavior with a student or having drugs and weapons on school grounds, teachers are not held accountable enough for their impact or lack thereof on young minds. If doctors can been sued for error in care, how can teachers be held accountable for not being able to teach students particular skillset needed to succeed in future grades or in real life? Sure they can be fired for not doing a “good enough” job, but that doesn’t undo the fact that the student spent an entire year with said teacher and is still incredibly behind when compared to his or her peers.  In his book Better, Gawande explains that the legal definition of negligence is “when a doctor has breached his or her duty of care” (p. 96). Moreover, his colleague Barry Lang goes a step further and defines negligence as any error that results in harm that could have been avoided (p.96). Within those definitions, Lang feels that a doctor can and should be sued in order to be held accountable for their actions. Though a lawsuit is never pleasant in any case, there is comfort in being able to know that something can be done to hold a doctor accountable. One can only hope that this in turn makes them more cautious and thorough in their work, but as Gawande points out in that section, you can never foresee everything. 

As a teacher myself, I do not have a personal wish to be sued by anyone, but the idea of passing a student along even though they are not prepared or keeping them back and not making gains in teaching them reeks of negligence on a teacher’s part. And in those cases who will find us negligent? What do we owe for these mistakes? In the section titled “On Fighting” Gawande makes the point that “in the absence of certainty, the truth is we want doctors who fight” (p. 159). While medicine and teaching present their own unique uncertainties, we also want and need teachers who fight. We need teachers who are able to check their egos, recognize when a plan or strategy is not working and are willing to start over again a million times before they can ever settle for passing blame on the student. The idea that “kids are just not willing or able to learn” is not acceptable. No amount of behavior issues or deficiencies can ever support that argument. 

In the book I Won’t Learn From You, Kohl writes that “failure results from a mismatch between what the learner wants to do and is able to do. The reasons for failure may be personal, social or cultural. But whatever they are, the results of failure are most often a lost of self-confidence accompanied by a sense of inferiority and inadequacy” (p.6). Take our example at the beginning of this essay. The boy is experiencing failure to learn. He wants to do well and learn to read and write at same level as his peers, however, he is unable to do so and feels inferior to his peers. The teacher can grow frustrated, as they at times do in such instances, and blame it on the student’s lack of effort and unwillingness to learn. But there is always more to the story, and many other things a teacher can try before throwing in the towel, so to speak. Perhaps it’s as simple as showing students that as a teacher you care. Often, the handicap to learning are feelings of inadequacy and insecurities. Having someone in your corner who believes in your ability to succeed can make a world of difference. In her article, “Do Your Students Know You Care”,  Deiro writes that “[she] was inspired by how respectfully the six teachers treated their students… and they worked to earn their student’s respect. These teachers trusted that students were doing their best, given their developmental level and life circumstances” (p.3). Did that student, repeating the 5th grade for the second time, get the respect of his teacher? And to what degree do his peers reflect his teacher’s attitude towards him? As teachers we are, by nature of position, the most authoritative and influential voice in the room. If we do not heed the responsibilities of this position, we can intentionally and unintentionally do as much damage as we can good. In such an instance to whom do we answer? Better yet, how long can we go on perpetuating this damage before someone finally realizes that we have breached our duty of care and have made repeated errors that resulted in the intellectual harm of a student? 

Though I do not have a constant threat of being sued hanging over me like doctors do, I do think a lot about how I impact my students and if they are learning enough in my classes. I have the same thoughts about classes that I visit and methods that I believe work and don’t work. I am meticulous about planning authentic and engaging lessons, building relationships with students, and being respectful because I am aware of how big or little of an affect I can have in their lives. I need to be able to teach and prepare them the best that I can. I owe them that.