I was trying to come up with a clever title for this post, but everything came up sounding either really, really trite, or as though I was making light of the subject at hand, and I certainly am not. So, Untitled it is.
At my new school, I have a somewhat diverse group of students I'm working with. I'm in the unique position in that I teach almost every student in the school--and middle school students I don't teach right now, I will in coming trimesters as things rotate. It's a great place to be--I get to know a lot of students and learn about the various backgrounds they come from.
The largest population of my school is students from Russian and Ukrainian families, but we have a growing population of students from the surrounding area who are Fijian. We even have a Fijian paraeducator who teaches the language in the After School Program, which I think is wonderful.
Though it seems like most of the school is Eastern European in a big way, the other cultures blend in very well and for the most part, the school moves along in good harmony...as much harmony as you can get on a hot afternoon with a roomful of nine-year-olds who are so over the school day, that is. Let's face it, kids get cranky, and it really doesn't matter who's on the receiving end of the cranky attitude. They don't discriminate--at least not that I have witnessed.
But adults do.
Today, I went into a colleague's room to set up for her kids' music time. They were at recess, so the room was quiet, and my colleague--who I shall call Mrs. Tired--approached me as I rolled my cart up to the front of the room.
"I have to warn you..."
This never bodes well.
She told me about a boy in her class. "You haven't met him yet. He's been suspended six times already this year."
"Six times?!" This is only the fourth week of school.
"Yes. He's very difficult. He will push your buttons and find ways to make you angry."
Of course, at this point, I'm already feeling tired. You mean I have 45 minutes of this ahead of me? What's he going to do, throw recorders at people's heads? But then she added something else about him.
"He's African American, you know."
I didn't say it out loud. Maybe if I were bolder, more willing to rock the boat, I would have. I just raised my eyebrows and said, "Okay." That's the best I could do this time--a non-committal "okay" with a hint of, "Does it matter?" in my voice.
I've seen it before. Black students are more likely to be disciplined for stuff white kids get away with. Black students are more often suspended or expelled. Black students are looked upon as troublemakers and "difficult," when in reality, they're only doing what their white, Asian, Latino, and other counterparts are doing--being kids.
I took a deep breath, and told her, "Well, I've got this."
The students returned from recess while I had a very fast, very stern talking-to in my head: Do not let this teacher's views of this child affect you. You have not met this child. You have a blank slate with him.
He was the last to return from recess. He sauntered into the room, and looked straight at me. I imagine he was wondering, "Well, what can I expect from this one?" He couldn't be expecting good things. I decided to prove him wrong.
Here's what I found out:
1. This kid is wiggly.
2. This kid needs attention.
3. This kid is almost desperate to help out...to the point where he can go a little overboard.
Here's what I already knew:
1. All kids his age (nine years old) are wiggly. Hell, I'm wiggly.
2. All kids need attention.
3. All kids really want to help out...and often get to the point where they can go a little overboard.
The point is, I didn't have a problem with him. He had one or two moments where I had to gently remind him to sit down in his chair. Other kids in the class had to have recorders taken away because they wouldn't stop playing when I was talking. Not this boy. He was trying so hard to behave.
Does that mean he hasn't been difficult with his teacher? Of course not. I'm sure they've gone round and round. But I wonder if maybe, she doesn't react in a way that makes him react, causing a chain of negative reactions that snowball until the kid is throwing crayons and getting suspended. I'm not in that classroom--except for the 45 minutes each week I visit to wreak havoc with silly songs and shrill recorders--but I saw behaviors from other kids in that room that were far more annoying than anything I witnessed from him.
There was no special treatment. He was reminded a time or two to stay focused on the lesson, rather than getting silly. But I also allowed him to help me collect the recorders at the end of class, and he bustled around the room with the box, neatly gathering instruments from his classmates and carefully putting them away.
I just wonder. A lot.
I don't write this post to pat myself on the back or glorify myself as a teacher. Far from it. I was just so bothered by his teacher's "He's African American, you know?" so much because well, no. I didn't know until you told me. If you hadn't told me, I would never have known he was a "problem child." Thank God I handed him a blank slate when he walked in...or my time there today might have been really miserable.
We must stop doing this. We must stop assuming that the black child is up to no good--or the black adult. The prejudices we hold against others--not just African Americans but Latinos, Asians, and everyone else--are based on untruth, and they are dangerous to a whole segment of the population.