I, like all Black Americans, am keenly aware of the gobsmacking contradictions that come with being Black in America.
Both of my parents fled the South in the 1960s to Washington state, roughly 20 years before I was born. I went through public school during the decline and eventual destruction of federally mandated school desegregation. For six years I proudly served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, before leaving in 2003 in protest of the Iraq War. For a time, I was vice president of my college Republicans club. I hugged and lifted my teary-eyed mother off the ground, while my friends beat pots and pans in a spontaneous neighborhood parade on election night in 2008. I dabble from time-to-time in respectability politics, but believe vehemently that #BlackLivesMatter.
I am a 37-year-old Black male who teaches American government and politics at a school that is 80 percent students of color in a state that is roughly 80 percent White.
In my classroom, we spend a significant amount of time talking about the gaps between the values we espouse as a nation: liberty, justice, individualism, meritocracy and the reality that we witness on a daily basis: segregated schools, segregated housing, disproportionate law enforcement and sentencing, inequitable school funding, reduced life expectancy and other indicators of systemic racism.
This is the American dilemma: there is no other nation in the world where people who look like me do as well, yet no other nation has such a dogged and continued history of marginalizing and abusing those same folks. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of education.
My Mother Lied and I Couldn’t Have Imagined If She Hadn’t
As a young child, I was blessed to attend a phenomenal, private Montessori school for the early stages of my education. I have clear memories of sign language and Spanish lessons, hands-on science experiments about the physiology of a sunflower, and the shocking experience of seeing the chemical reaction when vinegar and baking soda are mixed for the first time.
I had a predictable routine. Every morning, my mother would drop me off at school on her way to work and every evening my grandmother would come and pick me up. Grandma and I would ride the #27 bus down MLK, past the bank and the local pool, back to her house where she would help me with my letters and numbers…then reading…then, as I aged, homework until my mother could pick me up and take me home for dinner.
This was my routine: mom, Montessori, slippers, learning, copious snacks, grandma, learning, mom, dinner, TV or reading (usually not TV), bed. Wash, rinse and repeat.
At the school, I also recall being one, along with my friend Sterling, of only two Black children. This was a harbinger of what was to come. As my neighborhood, Tacoma’s Hilltop, descended into drug-fueled gang violence in the 1980s, my school closed up shop and moved to whiter pastures, in a nearby suburb. The building remained vacant for years and at one point in my early adulthood, it was turned into a funeral home—a poignant reminder each time I passed by it.
My mother put me in the Montessori because she lacked faith in my neighborhood school. With my Montessori’s closure, my mother, ever resourceful, ever the advocate, went around the system. She lied. She used her church friend, Sister Crawford’s address, to get me enrolled at a school focused on the arts and sciences. I do not believe I would be the man I am—the teacher I am—without her lie.
But, in a nation as wealthy as America, no parent should have to lie about their address to get their child into a high-quality school. Sadly, I have heard this same tale from many, many other Black families. She did the same when it was time for me to go to high school. For my sake, she lied.
I think about this often when I stand before my own classroom today. What would Black parents say about my teaching and the way I treat their children? How do I best make my classroom a place where parents know their children are valued? How do I make my classroom a place where students feel safe and loved? How do I make my classroom instruction relevant to their lives and needs? These are the preconditions for effective teaching and learning. These are questions every educator should ask themselves every day.
But No Parent Should Have to Lie
As Washington State’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, I visited numerous schools and talked with hundreds of teachers across our state. My lone, lingering frustration from that experience is my anger at walking the halls of a school filled predominately with Brown students and happening on an International Baccalaureate (IB) history class that was Whiter than the Trump cabinet.
It is infuriating, but also painfully common. Students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) and IB classes are challenged to do college level work, while in high school, are statistically more likely to go onto college, and more likely be successful there. Denying children of color access to these classes—particularly at majority Brown schools—is an act of callous racial injustice, but also common practice across the country.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Throughout most of my life, the school where I teach was the lowest-performing high school in our district. That’s not the case anymore. We now graduate over 80 percent our students on time, over 45 percent of our kids are enrolled in an AP class. We are at capacity and have a waiting list to get into the school, despite the recent opening of a charter school nearby.
My AP classes are as diverse as the building itself and the neighborhood surrounding it. Last year nine starters from our football team, five of them Black males, passed the AP government exam—all of them are now in college. We’re living, breathing proof of what’s possible when we put our focus on the students.
District leadership has provided additional staffing and funding to our highest need schools. In my school we have a family support specialist—in others there are partnerships focused on keeping families in stable housing. I recently asked my mother, “Would you send me to McCarver [my old neighborhood school] today?” She replied, “Yes, yes I would.” This is a measure of progress we have made.
The fights in education shouldn’t be about models of schooling, but instead about the quality of the educational experience for the students. Kids of color and low-income students deserve great teachers, great schools, access to challenging courses and they shouldn’t have to lie to get them.