Learning While Black: A Message From a Mother to Her Son
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Caleb, I want your teachers to know your journey to school—metaphorically and physically. I want them to see you and all of your peers as children from good families. I don’t want you to have to earn credit because of whom you’re related to or what your parents do for a living. And I don’t want your teachers to think that you’re special because you’re black and have a family that cares about you and is involved in your life. I want them to know that all children are part of families—traditional or not—that help shape and form who they are.
The summer before beginning 4th grade, I started teaching myself how to play the clarinet. It was the family instrument in that both of my older sisters played it when they were younger. For years I wanted to be a musician. It was in my blood. My grandfather was a musician, all of my uncles can sing very well, and my dad—your grandfather—was a famous DJ in Jamaica once upon a time. At the end of 5th grade, my band director took each member aside to provide feedback on whether or not she or he should continue music in middle school. My teacher told me that I just didn’t have it and should quit. I was devastated. I had dreams of becoming a conductor and I loved playing music. I learned to read music and text at the same time before entering kindergarten, so I couldn’t understand what my teacher saw or heard that made him think that I, at the tender age of 11, didn’t have what it took to pursue playing in a middle school band. He knew nothing about me. Had never asked any questions about me, our family, my aspirations. He didn’t seek to make me a better musician.
Caleb, I hope that you will have teachers who realize they are gatekeepers. I hope they understand the power they hold and work to discover your talents, seek out your dreams and fan them, rather than smother them. I hope they will see you as part of a family, with gifts and rich histories that have been passed down to you. I hope they will strive to know you even when they think they already know you. I hope your teachers will approach you with humility and stay curious about who you are.
When I was in 4th grade, my elementary school held a back-to-school night that featured student work and allowed families to walk the halls and speak with teachers. In each classroom was a student leader, chosen by teachers. I’m not sure what my role was supposed to be. But at one point, a couple came in, desiring to speak with Mrs. S. She was busy, so I thought I’d chat with them while they waited. As I approached them, they recoiled in fear and, with panicked looks, turned away from me and said, “Mrs. S.?” My teacher looked away from the folks she was working with and said, “It’s OK, she’s not like the rest.” I don’t remember what happened next. All I remember is that this seemed to be one of the first in a long line of reassurances that I was special and not like other black boys and girls. For many years afterward, I was told on more than one occasion, “You’re not like other blacks.” This was supposed to be a compliment.
Caleb, I pray that your teachers will not look at you through hurtful racial preconceptions. I pray that they will do the work necessary to eliminate racist practices in themselves and in those around them. I pray that they stand up for you in ways that leave you feeling strong and capable. I pray that they will nurture your spirit, and that you, in turn, will desire to be a better you.