How we got to this: Reflections of A Trench Warrior

I was born and raised in the not-too-distant shadow of protests turned into riots.

1970–the novelty of ‘Say it loud. I’m Black and I’m proud‘ had worn off and was drifting into nostalgia among youth transitioning into their roles as parents as they welcomed children of their own. Their edge being worn by the reality of life and mortality of [hu]man existence, a sentiment lifted by Kendrick Lamar, a Pulitzer prize winning rapper and Tupac, a dead rapper Black man. Revolutions are usually led by the young. Is that [still] me?

How did we get to 2020–my year of fifty–a year whose promise of clarity invoked by the health system code for good vision–has been opaque and layered, complex with interstitial moments of hard and soft, granular and strained…

Radiate Joy | Vision Tour snapshot taken with my twin sister at the beginning of our year of 50

I wonder, how we got to this moment? When Breonna was snuffed out by over-policing not in a school but in her home, with a [her] man in the house…who would be charged for attempt on an officer’s life, because he was willing to die protecting her. The legacy of “man in the house” policy–racist policy–strikes again. The paralysis of men who choose to be present…

Sigh…

As a teacher, for truly that is who I am (and what I am allowed to do and be), I am forced to reckon with the realness of my responsibility to

1. accept that I am shook, at my core by what is happening and

2. use what I do and who I am to put all of this in context for myself and for them…the ones who I teach and who I lead.

How did we get here–to a place when men, all under the age of 65–meaning, if they were educated in the United States or in a place influenced by the gleam of the American brand of education, they for all intents and purposes went to integrated schools, after Brown v. Board. Presuming that a child is about 7 when they must go to school, they would have started school at some point later than 1955 so…the experiment, should have been conducted over enough time that reliable results could be analyzed for effect. Let’s say, these same men who are now “serving” communities started school in the mid-seventies, the experiment of democratic and egalitarian multicultural schools was in full swing. The lessons and pilot studies from leaders like Jane Elliot were accepted as transformative and worth understanding. Then all of these men have been exposed to enough students NOT like them, that fear would not be the explanation for their casual disregard for people NOT like them–or is that the exact and precise reason why we are here?

This is how I think (from my teacher’s perspective) we got to this moment, this is what racism in schools does and looks like at each level:

Young families leave “the city” for a “safe” community where they can raise their family to have a diversity of friends

Families create lovely “play dates” with new neighbors and a few remnant neighbors from back in the day, carefully orchestrating birthday parties and outings so young children can be socialized “not to see difference”, the more well-resourced families ask guests to donate to a local charity (or they re-gift useless presents to Goodwill or donation bins) all the while teaching their privileged children it is better to give rather than to receive–perhaps planting seeds of savior-complexity that comes later.

The children become used to that ritual long enough to come to school and celebrate (appropriate) cultural traditions of the populations in the building, announced by flag-lined halls and bulletin boards. It is new and fresh and exciting and vibrant. By the third year of never being changed, students realize the showmanship of the display and barely even see it any more. Because teaching content matters more than teaching humanness, we care less about what is happening outside of the desk-lined classroom than the messaging from traditional voices (read classics, read canon, read White, read Christian, read male, read heteronormative, read able-bodied) that are upheld in textbooks where the biggest mirrors are upheld to all that tradition. This is the place where mirrors, sliding glass doors and curtains (thank you Dr. Reese) are betrothed to the others…the one’s that are dominated. The colonized-settler relationship of school is becoming apparent to teachers forced to carry things as a teacher in the form of curriculum, that even they find problematic, yet they teach whiteness and norms of American-branded education that marginalize many, maybe even most.

By fourth grade, testing starts and the “it” kids rise to the top while “those who ain’t it” fall to the bottom. The families with resources get support through outside tutoring and psych evaluations. Those with fewer (or no) resources, are dependent on what an overtaxed system gets around to identifying and providing. Counseling and therapy are illusive mirages seen through double-sided glass. Masks (as in “we wear the masks” not the current medical PPE but perhaps in the same vein as the “racism, vulnerability and pathology” that Dr. Benjamin describes) start being worn as every aspect of the school life and day separates and divides the haves from the have nots and curriculum violence rises in its impact. If we understand what is really being taught by the curriculum (explicit, null and hidden), we realize that we are being assaulted…and we are only 10.

Adults stop forcing kids to play together, because they are tired of the charades and contrived ways they must BE “together”…it is too much work…besides, it is time to devote your time and talent and money toward extra-curriculars and college savings.

By the time of learning in middle-school, adult doubt in the experiment of multiculturalism resurfaces in lines of advice like “don’t bring _____ home, you know how your _______ is” reverberate through the child’s heart and mind, ringing in ears and spilling out of casual conversations online and in-person that on-lookers deem as HIB, all the while, the Black and brown peers of those who hear it, feel the widening of the gaps and slam their hearts, minds and mouths shut in nervous laughter with “I gotta go” declarations. Walking home, processing race in #TheTalk first about police brutality then about interracial relationships their own families gave them, Black and Brown children are simmering: trying to resolve racially stressful encounters (thank you for the language Dr. Howard Stevenson). It is all so confusing. Adults treat so many important life topics as taboo–we get sex because nakedness is kind of embarrassing for everyone but race and skin-color–is an external and very “social construct” right? Not quite…race, though defined in the context of social structures, is the dimension of power that makes racism so hard to process…it is a widely accepted/embraced infrastructure of e-VALUATION. Look at the faces of the children in doll study after doll study…words thrown around like “good” and “bad” are everywhere in school as if educators are resigned to using single-syllable praises. “Should” (as in what we should do), “Good” and “bad” (as in job), “right” and “wrong” (as in answers, behaviors, outcomes) could easily be moved to a “banned words” list like the books that have been cast away because fact or fiction, they present hard histories that need to be told like The Hate You Give…just why?

Sigh…

Then by 8th grade, we really start sorting students. The tracks are no longer narrowed or widened only, they are tiered and stacked. Catching up in the classroom…not likely. Maybe on the field or the orchestra pit??? We start allowing Black and Brown bodies to lead defensive tackle squads to protect the “smarter” more teachable quarterback…besides, they–those lean Bboys–are hungrier, run faster, jump higher, play longer, breathe better–they were built for that/this–to entertain and earn a scholarship right? Demands to be evaluated on different scales and accelerated beyond the common class have created all of this.

Sigh…

On a mediocre team, they will not be seen, even if they are the best on the floor. Can they read? Can they compute? Do they imagine life beyond the borders or their here and now…coach?

Sigh…

By high school…all the lanes have been fully drawn. For more than twenty years we have known exactly why all the Black kids are sitting together in the cafeteria: they are seen in the space with their peers. They are carving out an antiracist #fishbowl for themselves to be seen–admired and valued if only for the few moments they have between the overwhelming days of erasure and condescension, invisibility and overpolicing. All the while, the non-Black “friends” they had as children have been secret admirers and frienemies. Their Brown friends have become competitors trying not to get their own butts beat in the system–torn between the white-black bookends of the American racist narrative. Every encounter becomes awkward. Straight weird! There is no where for Black students to go until they find somewhere to go.

Then the biggest dividing force emerges at high school graduation day: life beyond compulsory education…the place where money separates us even further. Those families back in the first few paragraphs now celebrate “the hard work” they’ve all done to reach the elite institutions we call four-year colleges where class and willingness to incur ridiculous amounts of debt finally distinguish the privileged from the barely holding on…

This is how we got back to these moments when humans are lynched. This moment of tremendous loss and chaos where BM are feared, hunted and killed for simply being present on the planet by people whose own fragility, fear and rage fuels the fires that are fanned by social media. The technologies have changed but the techniques of de-sensitizing us to hatred are the same.

This is how we got to this moment when WF executives see themselves as more valuable than BM bird watchers who have the same if not more academic pedigree under their purple-label collar.

Schools and education are part of the problem. Educators are trench warriors, on the front lines, on both sides–the side of racist education and anti-racist education.

I can’t finish right now, because I need to develop a plan to build an army (if I cannot find one to join) ready for rebellion…some are in [comm]union with others trying to do this work. We have gotten to the place of writing public statements and organized for movements like Black Lives Matter at School…now we need enacted change. WE must mobilize beyond the protest. I am starting with my sphere of influence. It is not that large–my classroom, my school, my region…getting to work, again…

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