Black teachers, please don’t tear down your black students
I looked from my classmate Kellz* to my favorite teacher. I couldn’t believe she had just said that to him. Kellz had come to class and kept talking during the teacher’s instructions. “Disrupting the class” is how report cards would’ve described it. But he and my teacher Mrs. Fossil** struggled to have a peaceful relationship from the very beginning of our fifth-grade class.
Apparently he’d gotten on her nerves one too many times that day and she blurted out, “Shut up, you little ignorant boy. You’re not going to be anything when you grow up anyway.”
And I sat there absolutely startled by this statement. By the time I’d heard Jay Z’s “So Ambitious” lyrics in 2009, I could relate to them personally — from Kellz’s perspective.
I felt so inspired by what my teacher said,
Said I’d either be dead or be a reefer head,
Not sure if that’s how adults should speak to kids,
Especially when the only thing I did was speak in class,
I’ll teach his ass.
Kellz and I were friendly enough that we could have our own little chats during recess, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say we were friends. However, up until that point, I’d admired and almost depended on that teacher as guidance both educationally and personally.
I could’ve easily been like any other student in the room and not internalized that attack as something sent my way. After all, that verbal weaponry was aimed at one particular student. But I decided from that moment forward that the whole class was collateral damage from her friendly fire. Why? His wrongdoing wasn’t worth telling my peer that he would not be “anything” when he grows up, simply from talking now. And if she’d say that to him, it was only a matter of time before she’d say it to someone else in our class.
Kellz took it like a champ though. He responded defiantly to Mrs. Fossil, “Yes, I will.” The class was silent for the rest of that day of class. And I was quiet around that teacher for the rest of the year.
Additionally, in seventh or eighth grade, a student named Ronald*** was told something similar by another teacher. Ronald, who was a friend of mine, laughed about it. He’d already grown a mustache, so we knew he definitely failed a grade (or two). He seemed to be content with people writing him off. I was not, and I kept insisting that he do his homework and helped where I could.
The sticks-and-stones saying is a bunch of nonsense: Words can hurt you. And when people, specifically youth, hear teachers use verbal weaponry against us, that sits differently. Not every student is an angel, but we don’t need to be told we’re devils either.
During a dress rehearsal for our eighth-grade graduation, I found out I won an award for “Most Educated Student.” I knew nothing about the award beforehand. When my name was called, I stood up and a stack of paper that was sitting on my lap fell to the auditorium floor. My whole goal from ages 6 to 12 was just to get a diploma, nothing more, nothing less. So I didn’t know what to do with this added achievement.
I distinctly recall Kellz being the first one to stand up and clap for me when I walked to the front of the stage. With a big grin on his face, he handed me all the stuff that fell out of my lap and congratulated me on my way back to my seat in front of his. It wasn’t that I was startled to win an award for good grades. My report cards earned bragging rights. But interestingly, it was him and another student (a girl athlete) who were the only two students accepted into a gifted high school. My grades weren’t good enough to make it.
I always wondered if that fifth-grade teacher knew what he’d done three years later. He’d managed to get better grades than me in several lesson plans even though I was her (retired) teacher’s pet. He did what Jay Z said: He “taught (her) ass.”
So how does this story relate to African-American instructors? Through all the trials and tribulations that I — and plenty of other black students — went through, there was one group that I knew had my back. It was my own skinfolk, those who looked out for me in my own home and in schools.
I had African-American teachers who taught about black leaders in history, literature and art, so I knew they existed. While Jay Z did have some good teachers (i.e. his Jewish teacher Mrs. Renee Rosenblum-Lowden), I had quite a few positive black (and one specific white) instructors who helped build my confidence too. By the time I got to high school and college, I knew which subjects would be career opportunities for me and which areas were being conveniently ignored and spoke up about it — constantly, especially in college. (Interestingly, my private, mainly white, Catholic grad school was the first to teach me about “white privilege,” and my white instructors were all the type of people that black folks would invite to “the cookout” or call “allies.”) But those formative (ages zero to 8) and tween (ages 9 to 12) years with black teachers gave me a sense of pride that had to be embodied, not just taught.
So when we (black students) hear people — specifically those who look like us — tell us we’re not going to be anything when we grow up, that cuts much harder. When non-black teachers do it, we can usually connect it to racism. That’s their problem, not ours. When we do it to each other, we can speak that kind of negativity into existence and hurt each other. Kellz used it as ammunition to get better and “teach (her) ass.” Unfortunately, Ronald (the other boy mentioned above) sat quietly during our eighth grade graduation ceremony. By the time we’d graduated, Ronald had dropped out altogether.
* Not his real name
** Not her real name
*** Not his real name
Interested in more thoughts from Shamontiel on education? Check out the following reads:
White teachers, please stop judging your black students
The fine line between empathy, pity and casual racism in education
The one thing teachers cannot teach — earning trust from their students
Why my Creative Writing teacher became my liaison in a sexual harassment incident
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