Written by CocoaMamas contributor HarlemMommy
You know what’s dangerous? It’s dangerous to speak your mind as a Black child in an inner-city school. I’m an educator. I love (almost) all my students. As a middle school teacher, I saw tons of kids who chose to be disrespectful, arrogant, or jerky. But except for one or two cases, I was always able to remind myself that they were children. Just kids stretching their muscles of power, testing limits and sometimes making others miserable because they themselves were miserable. As I taught in a school where the majority of students were Black or Brown, my skin color might have gained me some cred at first. Despite what other (white) teachers sometimes said, being Black wasn’t enough for a kid to respect or listen to me. They soon figured out that I liked them, cared about their futures and would do my best to help them succeed. They also soon learned that I knew my subject area and wouldn’t tolerate crap or chaos.
In Maya Angelou’s Heart of a Woman, Maya is summoned to her son’s school one day. Guy had been explaining to some white classmates on the bus about how babies were made. Well, the little white girls freaked the heck out and Guy was in trouble for using bad language in front of students, especially girls. When Maya was in the principal’s office and heard the story, she asked what her son had said about the incident. Turns out, they hadn’t even asked Guy for his side of the story. They just assumed that what the girls conveyed was true. Maya was, of course, upset and demanded to see her son. She then gives voice to how many parents of color feel: You give your child to people who often do not look like you. You have to trust that they will not mar his sense of self, and if they do, you must do your part to repair it. I’ve read this book many times, but reading it last month this part really struck me.
The success of my students was personal for me. The more Black and Brown faces without a degree meant less of those faces in power; meant more of those faces dead or in jail. I knew that my eventual child would be okay academically, but some cop or lady on the street wouldn’t necessarily distinguish between my polite, kind, hilarious kid with the high reading level from a “dangerous thug up to no good.”
I pushed my kids academically, stressed the importance of respect for each other and themselves and laughed with them. (Middle schoolers are hilarious. Especially if you find fart jokes funny. I do.)
However, there are many teachers that are not like me: teachers that call students “dirtbags” teachers that see any deviation from given instructions as dangerous, defiant and insubordinate behavior. Too many Black boys are in special education classrooms because they are “behavior issues.” We have to ask though, how much is it about the behavior and how much is it about the color of the kid? The same behavior — being wiggly in class, speaking without raising your hand, being mouthy — by a white kid in Scarsdale is seen as childish antics, but in a Black or Brown child in Harlem is seen as insolent. (Now if a parent wants to have different standards fine, but schools need to be consistent.)
The guidelines for suspension are so very subjective. Was the student was defiant or disrespectful? Defiant is suspension, disrespectful is a detention. There are shades of meaning there that are left to the beholder. Don’t have too many suspensions on your record or it will be harder to find a school that wants you in NYC. (Students must apply and matched to public high schools in New York City in a complicated system.)
I get it. It is extremely difficult to itemize what exactly is meant by defiant. There are millions of ways a kid will find to be defiant. But we have to do better. We need to somehow quantify how bad an attitude must be before a suspension. Otherwise, we just give license to suspend kids for being jerks instead of working with them through this angsty, trying period in the lives. How many of us would want to be judged for how we were at 14? Yet, by suspending kids for arguably age-appropriate behavior, and not helping them grow through or learn from the process, we are stunting their growth academically and emotionally. We need to hold them accountable for bad behavior, but still care about them as people. We must do better. If that means more time is taken to really piece out events that have occurred, so be it. Just as our justice system would rather let a guilty man go free than an innocent one imprisoned, we need to make sure suspended kids really deserve it.
Schools are supposed to be the place where it’s okay to fail sometimes. You see how far you can push and experience safe consequences. Too often, this is not how school operates for Black children. A student that feels that he is heard, respected and valued is more likely to succeed at school and at life. Teachers are not the bad guys. But I will make sure to be in my kid’s classroom when the time comes. That teacher will know that I am paying attention. I am a fierce ally for the teacher, but I am also an advocate for my son.