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Learning While Black: A Message From a Mother to Her Son

Reflecting on her own history as a black child in slowly integrating schools, a mother shares her hopes for a better future for her son.

Photo Credit: Junial Enterprises |


Dear Caleb,

When you were almost 2, we would drop off your cousin, Sydney, at her K-8 elementary school. The ritual went something like this:

“OK, Syd, have a good day.”

“OK,” she’d groan as she grabbed her backpack. “Bye, Caleb.”

“Bye,” you’d wave and grin with your entire body.

“Bye,” Sydney would say one last time as she shut the door. I’d roll down the car window.

“Byeeeee,” you’d sing.

“Bye,” Sydney would laugh as she caught up with friends.

I’d roll up the window as you said “bye” a few more times, then start to whimper. “It’s OK, sweetie, she’ll be back before you know it. And you’ll be off joining her before I know it.”

And it’s true. Before I know it, Caleb, you will be throwing your backpack on and waving goodbye as you run off across the playground. I think about that moment often and wonder about the condition of schools you’ll enter. I worry about sending you, my black son, to schools that over-enroll black boys into special ed, criminalize them at younger and younger ages, and view them as negative statistics on the dark side of the achievement gap.

Son, my hope for you is that your schooling experiences will be better than this, that they’ll be better than most of mine.

For three years of my K-8 schooling, from 7:40 a.m. until 3:05 p.m., I was black and invisible. I was bused across town to integrate a white school in Southeast Portland, Ore. We arrived at school promptly at 7:30 and had 10 full minutes before the white children arrived. We spent that time roaming the halls—happy, free, normal. Once the white children arrived, we became black and invisible. We were separated, so that no more than two of us were in a class at a time. I never saw black people in our textbooks unless they were in shackles or standing with Martin Luther King Jr. Most of us rarely interacted with a black adult outside of the aide who rode the bus with us. I liked school and I loved learning. But I never quite felt right or good. I felt very black and obvious because I knew that my experience was different from that of my peers. But I also felt invisible because this was never acknowledged in any meaningful way. I became visible again at 3:05 when I got back on the bus with the other brown faces to make our journey home.

Caleb, I want your teachers to help you love being in your skin. I want them to make space for you in their curricula, so that you see yourself as integral to this country’s history, to your classroom’s community, to your peers’ learning. I want your teachers to select materials where blacks are portrayed in ordinary and extraordinary ways that actively challenge stereotypes and biases. Most of all, Caleb, I want your teachers to know you so they can help you grow.

One day a teacher was trying to figure out why I was so angry since I was generally a calm, fun-loving kid. She said to me: “I know you, Dyan. You come from a good family.” But did she know me? She knew that I lived on the other side of town and was bused in as part of the distorted way that Portland school authorities decided to “integrate” the schools. But did she know what that meant? My mom—your grandma—got us up at 6 a.m. in order for me to wash up, boil an egg just right, fix my toast the way I liked it, and watch the pan of milk so that it didn’t boil over, so I could have something hot in my stomach before going to school. You know Grandma, she doesn’t play. We had to eat a healthy breakfast before going to school, and we had to fix it ourselves. Maybe that’s what that teacher meant by “good family.” My teacher didn’t know that we had to walk, by ourselves, four blocks to the bus stop and wait for the yellow bus to come pick us up and take us to school. It took us a half hour to get to school. Once there, I had to constantly code switch, learn how not to be overly black, and be better than my white counterparts.

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