Photo by Michael Mims on Unsplash

Confessions of an “At-Risk” Black Boy Turned Educator

I wasn’t the ideal student: I was either asleep in class or glaring at my teachers from across the room as I struggled to find the relevance in what they were teaching me. If you were to look at my elementary, middle, and early high school transcripts and test scores, you would probably be shocked. Head down in the back of the classroom or chin cradled by my palms, you would rarely see me touching my pencil, even when asked.

To some of the teachers, especially those who didn’t look like me, I was the stereotype of every other misunderstood young, Black male student in the traditional classroom environment: a troublemaker who came to school to give his teachers grief, while struggling with some untold trauma at home, as his single parent struggled to make ends meet.

A lot of that was true,
and then some.
But much of it was not.

I struggled in every subject, especially all things related to grammar. My test scores were so low that there were conversations about putting me in special education classes when I was in elementary and middle school. But my mother resisted. Whether she knew it or not, my low grades and test scores weren’t proof of a learning disability, per se. They were evidence of something else: the trauma of a young boy buckling under the weight of poverty and a crippling fear of failure. Every lesson, with the exception of a few, felt like yet another opportunity to fall short of every bar placed before me. I was painfully aware of it. And the last thing I wanted to do was prove that what everyone said and thought about me was right.

So, I refused to try.

Back then, I didn’t see the relevance behind knowing the correct order of pronouns in a sentence when my single working mother went to bed hungry because there was only enough food to feed one of us. Like many mothers in her situation, she tried to hide it, but I knew. I didn’t understand the point behind learning because only playing could take the pain away from the constant feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that invaded all aspects of my young existence.

The symptoms of complex trauma were ever-present, but no educator or counselor seemed to pick up on it. I was always tired, moody, and struggling to concentrate. At times I would be well-behaved, pencil scribbling intensely on the page. Other times I’d refuse to do anything, either laughing at the jokes my peers cracked in the back of the classroom (when they weren’t about me) or staring into space dreaming of any place but where I was.

In those moments, I realized I had a secret I never told anyone: I was envious of my White peers who seemed to have it all. Every day that I was bussed to the newly-built elementary school on the other side of town perfectly nestled in a growing White suburb, I was reminded of everything we didn’t have. Everything we weren’t. As the world around me shifted — from the projects I called home into a community of smiles that didn’t look like me — my mood oscillated like the shaky fan whose rickety hum lulled me to sleep at night, especially when my mom worked late nights at the nearby convenience store. Some days I managed to shake it off and find joy in what it meant to be a kid and the willful defiance that came with rejecting the clear inequities that blared around me. Other days I felt crushed and suffocated by it, watching those who looked like me never have access to the things we needed.

No one ever talks about the burden fake smiles have on the hopes and cheeks of kids of color as they contort their faces to pretend everything is okay when they know it isn’t. Academic research responds to this by touting the importance of a growth mindset, GRIT. But this loses sight of what the real problem is, especially from the perspective of youth of color. There is an unspoken truth hidden in plain sight: being force fed toxic narratives about yourself and your people with a side of diluted history during the shortest month in the year, and the occasional handshake, correct pronunciation of your name, and a backward compliment like, “You’re so articulate,” doesn’t lead to feeling heard, honored, or affirmed. It’s just another form of violence. It forces all those who experience well-intentioned but painful backhanded compliments such as these to feel less than worthy, like their very history, culture, and presence as a young person of color is okay, but only as long as it conforms and shape shifts to White American standards of approval. But diverse bodies shouldn’t have to worry about feeling validated to feel safe in the presence of Whiteness. And Whiteness should never feel it has the right to validate or invalidate any other culture. Point blank.

As kids, we saw and heard it all.

Especially the opinions of well-intentioned but sorely misguided educators, researchers, and community members who smacked labels across our foreheads that choked the life out of our hopes and dreams. We weren’t considered kids like our White peers who were seen and donned with epithets of “future CEO,” “world leader,” “game-changer,” or even “kid.” We certainly weren’t called what we were: descendants of kings and queens or even survivors of cultural and ethnic genocide, bravely facing social injustice at every turn. Instead, we were called every deficit-based signifier imaginable: “delinquent,” “disadvantaged,” and “at-risk.” Translation: inferior, incapable, unteachable, unworthy.

And while our White peers were able to dance with glee in their bubbles of protection, often reinforced by the teachers who were overwhelmingly White, we watched each other and those we loved drown in intergenerational trauma that was literally passed down in our genes due to historical, institutional, and systemic dehumanization. Many watched each other die a slow academic death, with no hope of support, whispering, “It is what it is.” And if the educational system didn’t successfully criminalize us for the outcome, it shouldered all the blame on our parents. We didn’t learn because we were lazy, disruptive, willfully defiant, troublemakers with parents who didn’t care about our education or their own, they’d say.

As kids, we didn’t have words for it.
Our parents, the adults, didn’t either.

Or at the very least, they couldn’t talk about it with us. Somewhere in the fight to survive, everyday lessons on our lack of privilege and lifelong fight to be seen as human, created a different set of priorities. So, we became the pain no one talked about but we all saw. Because every child is a mirror of the truth. Whether we choose to believe it or not, we weren’t to blame. And neither were our parents.

Eventually, I discovered — through the extreme patience and tireless dedication of my mother (and future stepfather), and the no-nonsense loving kindness of a few teachers and school administrators — I was enough, and my voice was too. They showed me learning, reading, and writing weren’t shackles meant to keep me grounded, but the opposite. Through the pen, they helped me find my power; I learned to question and reimagine the world around me. Through the written word, I became brave enough to embrace and transform the perceived fractured mirror of my existence and realize it had always been a kaleidoscope of possibilities. I no longer saw myself as the helpless Black youth slowly falling into an inevitable abyss that media, educators, administrators, academics, etc. taught me to be. I was what I had always been from birth: an Icarus hell bent on surviving, and soaring again.

Hurt people can’t heal people,
until they find their voice,
and are taught how to use it.

But being an educator was never a part of the plan. Working at a nonprofit, running a community-based afterschool program or leading systems change, specifically in my hometown, was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, it is something I said I would never do. There were three reasons for that: (1) I saw my favorite educators as remarkably talented and powerful — nothing short of real life superheroes — responsible for the lives and futures of more than they could ever know, and I never saw myself as capable or selfless enough, (2) the term “teacher” was a dirty word made pristine only by those worthy enough to bear the title and burden; do-gooders dedicated to a life of service, with little financial reward, and (3) I was taught growing up that true success was leaving your community and never coming back. It was somehow escaping the pain, trauma, and poverty through riches and glory that only the top jobs in the biggest cities could offer. With those three points as my compass, I went to college nearly 1,000 miles away, just outside of Chicago, and then moved to work and live in New York City.

I didn’t feel worthy of teaching,
or like I had enough to offer.
So, I did everything else.

I trained over 1,500 adult mentors in NYC at a youth mentoring organization, ranging from business executives to recent college grads, for NYC high school youth. As an administrator at a major university, I pushed undergraduate business students to think, create, and lead differently. As a storyteller and creative for an education reform organization, I penned national marketing campaigns for education nonprofits and some of the largest school districts in the country. And then after relocating to my hometown with the chance to work remotely but still keep my NYC salary, the worst-case-scenario (in my mind) happened. The position wasn’t a longterm fit, and, thus, I found myself jobless with only two choices: move back to NYC or find a job in what felt like a nearly nonexistent job market for my specialty.

Within a few weeks, I stumbled across a job that terrified and excited me at a small literacy nonprofit. With anxious butterflies in my stomach, I dared to believe I had something to offer kids like me. I applied, got the job, but it was less than one-third my previous salary. I considered turning it down. I asked my mom what she thought I should do. She responded with a question, “If you met someone like you now back when you were 14, how would things be different?” I was speechless.

I couldn’t remember ever seeing a young Black male teacher while growing up, and I certainly didn’t recall seeing anyone who dared to break the traditional mold of masculinity. With long hair that was always tied up in an Afro puff and a never-ending assortment of colorful skinny jeans, I was a charming, fast-talking, bona fide New Yorker with “Windy City” and southern roots who wasn’t afraid to cross his legs and could care less how anyone felt about it. I couldn’t fathom what the 14-year-old me, who barely made eye contact, only spoke in public when he needed to, and struggled through years of bullying, would have thought. But I had a sinking suspicion that the younger me would have at least gotten a laugh and a little bit of hope after experiencing someone like me.

Eventually, I was brave enough
to do the one thing
I’d always been too afraid to do.

And since then, I’ve learned to go by many names: village-builder, artist, researcher, and educator. I have realized that everything I’ve gone through has equipped me to be the true definition of an educator, which, in essence, is another word for healer: a master weaver who can take the painful webs of rejection, trauma, shame, and loneliness that stifle the best parts of us, and help the most vulnerable discover our power, and our voices, and then use it to heal ourselves and others. Not because we’ve figured it all out, but because we haven’t and we now understand the only way we can is through a life dedicated to learning with and from our youth, families, and communities.

Is it easy? Absolutely not.
It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
But it’s what I
choose to do for a living.

Keith F. Miller Jr.

Written by

educator, artist-researcher, and Chief Listener of The Pillow Talk Project, redefining masculinity through everyday intimate conversations. IG:morepillowtalk

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