My eight-year-old son smiled as we drove to school on the first day in August 2014. “I’m so excited, Mama. I have butterflies and frogs in my tummy.” By the end of the first week, he was lamenting third grade. “I hate school,” he’d moan on the morning commute. Before the end of the first quarter, I overheard him telling a playmate, “Yeah, I’m probably going to fail this year.” After his friend left, I checked in with my son. “Why do you think you’re going to fail?” He shrugged, “That’s what my teacher told me.” The mama bear rose up in me. “You are not going to fail! We are in this together. Mama will do whatever it takes to help you make it through this school year,” I committed.
Each day I would ask my son about his experience at school. Being the astute observer, he reported the differences that he saw. “My teacher is harder on the boys than on the girls.” As a mom of two boys and one girl who has worked in formal and informal education settings for over twenty years, I understand the differences between boys and girls. The traditional school model favors girls…sitting in one place for hours on end, discussing a topic, and writing a response to a reading. Boys need the freedom to move; they like to put their thoughts into action. I could see how a teacher in a traditional setting who is pressed to meet certain academic standards in order to meet testing requirements might feel more comfortable working with girls. Females comply, and the teacher can get her job done. I’m not saying this is right…I’m just saying I understand her experience.
“Mama, my teacher is also harder on the brown kids than on the white kids, “ he shared. This comment sent me through the roof! Although I am a white single woman, I am parenting three adopted bi-racial children. Our lives model diversity. We lived in a racially and economically diverse neighborhood in an urban district. Our drive time and dinnertime conversations centered around race and identity. We have friends from every background. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of our family heroes. His dream that “one day children will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” is our creed. I have taught my children what matters most is the heart. So…to hear my little boy tell me that he experienced racial bias in his elementary school angered me.
Throughout the year, he came home with stories of how differently the brown or black children have been treated. “Mama, one day there was a brown boy and a white boy throwing rocks on the playground. The white boy was given a warning, but the brown boy had to sit in time-out.” His anecdotal stories lined up with the data. According to Milner (2007), black males are disciplined more severely than any other demographic. This problem is called disciplinary disparities…harsher or exclusionary punishment based on race and gender. Black boys are under attack. Is it because of fear? Perhaps, as a society we still fear the power of the black man. Perhaps, we see race rather than humanity. Even though the Civil Rights Movement ended in the 1960’s, we have a long way to go. The events in Ferguson, Cleveland, Charleston, Baltimore, Minneapolis and now across the country confirm that our American society is racially divided. According to our Southern city’s plan for growth over the next twenty-five years, our public school student population is projected to be 68% black, Hispanic or other by 2040. This reflects the national trend. Therefore, the issues of race and equality must take center stage. How do we bridge the chasm between white and black, rich and poor, female and male? I believe it starts by being Just One…Just One trying to heal the hurt and make a change.
I asked my son to write a letter about what he was experiencing at school. I shared the letter in a meeting with the teacher and the principal. The teacher cried. “This is what he thinks?” she asked through her tears. I believe it was a wake up moment for her. After that, she was more intentional about building a positive relationship with my son. It was not an easy road for any of us. Since his initial enthusiasm for school was crushed in the early days of that school year, it took a concerted effort to rebuild trust with his teacher. They had good days and bad days. His experience as a brown boy coupled with the possibility of a learning disability made it an awful year. However, there are a few important lessons I learned along the way:
1. Listen to my child.
His observations of the world are valid. My job is to ask probing questions in order to get a fuller picture. I need to give him space and grace to process his experience of the world. His experience as a brown male is different than mine as a white female. However, we are both human. I must continually point us both back to love and truth.
2. Acknowledge race.
As much as I would like to believe that we are beyond the racial divide in America, we aren’t. I need to name it and talk about it. I want to be part of the conversation that moves us forward to a place of true equality.
3. Open dialogue.
I need to communicate with the principal and teachers at my child’s school. I can text, email, call, meet in person. They need to see me at the school even when there isn’t a situation that needs addressed. We, caring adults, are working together for the best interest of my child. It is not “us vs. them”.
My son’s academic career has been a difficult journey, filled with many tears, countless school conferences and ceaseless prayers. My hope is that my son will have a life-long love of learning. I don’t want him to be a victim of the school-to-prison pipeline that determines the number of jail beds based on third grade test scores. I want him to rise above. He is smart…I call him my scientist, philosopher, theologian. Even as a third grader he asked me the most intriguing questions…”Why is blue blue? What existed before God? Why is the letter S called S?” He has a strong sense of justice…he looks out for the underdog in his class. My son has the potential to be a real world-changer. My job is to guide him through tumultuous times, seizing every teachable moment and encouraging him to persevere. And, hopefully, what I do as Just One will help other brown and black boys like him.