School Tried to Turn Me into a House Nigga

Welcome back educators!

It’s been a crazy summer but let’s get ready to welcome our kids into our schools, classrooms and lives in a culturally responsive way. Before y’all do that though, get your morning act-right (i.e. CREADnyc) nourish your mind and move your practices.

I’m gonna take you back in time.

School year 1994-95. I’m a 5th grade student in an elementary school in District 9 in the Bronx. The school should have been shut down years ago but it’s still standing and I’m still attending. The instruction is trash, there’s no such thing as Phys Ed or recess and we didn’t have a cafeteria the entire year before due to an asbestos problem, so all students were forced to eat in the PTA room. Despite all of this and the fact that the school pretty much feels like what I imagine Riker’s Island would feel like. I’m performing in the 95th percentile in the city on state assessments. Out of a class of 30 students, I’m among three who are actually performing at or above grade level.

I’m excelling in math and while kids are filling out worksheets, my teacher has decided that I don’t need the photocopies; I am the chosen one who gets the book. I finish all of the problems that require rote memorization and I sit in the front of the room looking like a hostage until it’s time to go home.

After a couple of months, my teacher sees that although I’m a compliant student, this shit ain’t cutting it. So he pulls out his graduate school textbooks and asks me to help him study for a test he has that week. I assist him and the rest of the year pretty much goes like this: I run through 10 pages in my workbook then I sit with him and play study partner. He even shouted me out for helping him get through grad school at our moving up ceremony. Everyone clapped, I smiled and received one of many ribbons.

What’s the point of this story?

I’d think it would be pretty obvious but just in case it isn’t, I’m gonna explain using three major questions you should be asking right now.

WTF happened to the rest of my classmates?

While I was chillin’ in the front of the room, feeling all important, my classmates were throwing paper across the room, running in and out of the closets, getting thrown out of class and pretty much failing. That doesn’t mean that every single person was failing but those who struggled, continued to do so. There were literally kids in my class who didn’t know their multiplication tables, couldn’t read the word problems, didn’t have school supplies and I remember that teacher saying that all they needed to do was pay attention. They were paying attention to the fact that they were being ignored. School is the most Darwinian experiment we will ever encounter because it truly teaches students the meaning of survival of the fittest. School could be its own reality TV show, like The Amazing Race or The Biggest Loser and both of those titles would be appropriate.

Interesting thing was, I kept in touch with about 1/3 of that class until high school and only one of my friends graduated on time with me and the rest didn’t graduate. This was the school experience for my friends growing up. This was before No Child Left Behind, although so many students are still so far behind. They’re invisible now. But my classmates came to school everyday just like I did and left with a very different education than me.

Why me?

I’ve been asked more than once why I was able to be successful while many of the people I went to school with didn’t “make it.” Of course, everyone says, “Well, it’s because you worked hard,” “It’s because you understood the value of education,” and “Some people just don’t want to put in the work.” While some of that may true, there’s always a lot of emphasis placed on the individual which is too simplistic. I’ll admit that I did work hard and I did value education but people leave out the fact that my teachers also pushed me to work harder than my peers and decided that I was worth “saving.” My teachers followed the motto that you can’t save everyone so they chose the salvageable one, the one that they could smile at during award ceremonies and take some credit for, the one that they believed would grow up to be somebody. So fuck the other 29 bodies in those classes. Those kids, my friends, became nobodies.

The funny thing about being the smart kid is that very rarely do we need great teachers. When it came down to content, I was usually ahead of the class so my teachers didn’t really teach me anything. I would have done my work even if I was unsupervised. So all of this effort that my 5th grade teacher and those before and after him put into me, should have really gone to someone else. But I did learn something by being the smart one…

Did this add any value to my education?

Please do not ask me about one thing I learned in 5th grade math. I can’t recall. Based on what I think a 5th grader should know, I’m sure we were working on decimals or fractions but at what point was I actually challenged? Giving me an entire book of problems I already knew how to do wasn’t a challenge. It was busy work. I learned that I could pass tests but there were so many unintended lessons I learned that year:

      It was only after I was an adult that I realized what many of my friends probably understood back in 5th grade and that was the fact that school didn’t give a fuck about everyone, only certain people. When I received my ribbon at that ceremony, my friends clapped for me knowing that they would never have a teacher write a speech about them. They weren’t worth saving. They were forgotten.

      Get yours and fuck everyone else! School teaches us to look out for ourselves. I knew that my friends were struggling in class. When I was in the front of the room, I pretended like they weren’t there. My thinking was, if you did your work, you could be the teacher’s study partner next week. I think deep down, I didn’t want my friends to excel because somehow that meant that I would be replaced. This is how our school system brainwashes our children. Competition is healthy but it shouldn’t make students petty. I wanted all of the awards, all of the attention, all of the glory. School didn’t teach me to be communal. When my teacher asked me to help him study, I should’ve said “Nah, Julio needs help. I’m gonna sit with him.” But I didn’t say those things and the teacher didn’t either. So that just reinforced that in order to make it, some people must be sacrificed.

      Lastly, for those of you who read my blogs, I talk about White folks and the ways in which whiteness impedes and destroys Black and Brown minds. But let me be clear, the majority of my elementary school teachers were Black and Latino (with the exception of my 6th grade Humanities teacher and the art teacher). I didn’t really encounter a lot of White teachers until I went to high school. These teachers of color were more than ok with the status quo. I didn’t see a huge difference between those who looked like me and those who didn’t. They gave the same speeches to the class as any other fed-up teacher: “Whether y’all learn or not, I’m still getting paid.” The “or not” was much more common.

Educators

  •      Here we go. It’s the beginning of the school year. I know y’all are planning units and lessons but what are the life-long lessons you plan to teach? We gotta show our students through our practices what it means to truly leave no one behind.

o   Create more communal recognition and incentives than individual ones. Students get points and praise when everyone completes the homework, or when everyone in their group can explain the answer to a problem or when everyone is following directions or everyone has contributed during the Socratic seminar.

  •      We have to challenge our high flyers. Honor roll students should not be grading your papers during class. They need to extend their knowledge and work on something that connects to the real world and apply their learning.

o   Look up resources on differentiating work products for your students.

    •      How do we check ourselves when we are paying too much attention to the 2 or 3 students whose hands are always up? First we need to ask ourselves, for whom did we design our lessons? If we ask questions that only 2 students can answer, then those 2 students are who we came to teach that day.
    •      Ask students how they will let you and their classmates know when they need help. Your class is a learning community and everyone should be able to contribute their ideas, knowledge and questions without fear or shame.
    •      I wish I didn’t have to say this but there are teachers who are still telling kids that they get paid regardless of whether they learn.

Here’s my advice to those teachers: Get a different fuckin job. The economy is better now. You don’t have to teach our kids and that goes for teachers of color too. If you’re doing more harm than good, please go sit down but not in our classrooms.

Lastly, it is not your job to save anyone. Your job is to give students the tools that they need to compete in the 21st century workforce, the tools to build their communities and the tools they need to help themselves. Choosing students and labeling them the Golden Child teaches them to shit on their classmates and it teaches the other students that they don’t matter. By the way, there’s a name for those chosen students: house niggas.

As always, we got work to do.

Rise.
Read.
Resist.
Repeat.

Welcome Back!

Posted in Back to School, Black Resistance.

6 Comments

  1. Khalya, your experience unfortunately illustrates how frequently teachers don’t run toward students the very students that need the most support. We end up criticizing or blaming these students for their difficulties in education rather than changing our own practices, or – even worse – we pretend we don’t see them sitting in our classrooms and ignore them all together. We settle for embracing our students that “have a chance” or show promise, or display what feels like a familiar quality that makes us want to invest in these kids – often, as you point out – at the extreme expense of other students. This isn’t to demonize teachers, because that’s not even the core issue. The behavior of individual teachers reflects the truly terrifying notion that we always have had and still maintain systemic problem in education of separating the kids we think will make it and the ones that we decide won’t. Until we actively challenge this basic premise of our education system, and the policies that keep is alive and thriving, I worry that our fear of students that challenge our ideas about who succeeds and what success looks like is going to result in all of the consequences of neglecting another generation of students.

    P.S. For teachers looking for resources around supporting values that facilitate a more communal classroom culture, I’m a big fan of the Circle of Courage. https://www.starr.org/training/youth/aboutcircleofcourage

  2. I was thinking about this very thing recently when my son and his friends were talking about a student in their class. Since the school is small I pretty much interact with most of his classmates. Although I’ve heard this kid is “bad” he’s always been very respectful and helpful to me. And as they talked about how bad he is I thought to myself, I bet if a teacher called Keyshawn to their desk and asked him to help them with something Keyshawn’s behavior would change. But that privilege is reserved for the “Khalyas” of the class. And as someone who was an occasional “Khalya” I know that that praise and that special feeling is intoxicating. It is a motivator. Just like you wanted it all to yourself, that feeling can be a force to propel a student out of that trough of mediocracy.

  3. “I knew that my friends were struggling in class. When I was in the front of the room, I pretended like they weren’t there. My thinking was, if you did your work, you could be the teacher’s study partner next week. I think deep down, I didn’t want my friends to excel because somehow that meant that I would be replaced. This is how our school system brainwashes our children. Competition is healthy but it shouldn’t make students petty. I wanted all of the awards, all of the attention, all of the glory. School didn’t teach me to be communal. When my teacher asked me to help him study, I should’ve said, ‘Nah, Julio needs help. I’m gonna sit with him.’ But I didn’t say those things and the teacher didn’t either. So that just reinforced that in order to make it, some people must be sacrificed.”

    Amen to all that. I’m still un-learning those lessons from being a student. And I guess I should add, I was white and a whole lot of my struggling classmates (can’t even really say “friends” if I’m honest) weren’t.

  4. Wow. This was a really great read. I’m not a teacher but I can tell you as a student I was one of the ones teachers ignored because I didn’t get it. I was threatened with being left back, despite my desire to learn and do better the teacher never cared to offer extra help, she just moved on. It hurt a lot. I’m happy to say that you among many others I know who are educators are passionate about teaching all of their students and wanting them all to succeed. So thank you. In turn it also reminds me that since I’m back on school again pursuing a different career that I should be the kind of student that if I can help another I will.

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