When my teaching widower and I bought this figure (above), the sales clerk used every white code she could think of to help us “recognize” the boy’s race. Why would a white couple buy black artwork? I wanted him because he looks like so many kids I’ve taught and loved.
I often experience great heartache when I watch young black boys in kindergarten. They are so excited about school, about pleasing their teachers and making friends. Their eyes are bright with happiness. They are eager to learn. These same boys, a few years later, are sitting in the office, assigned a space next to the teacher, or isolated at a desk far from their peers. They are doing poorly academically. They are referred to special education. They are the behavior problems in the school. I am describing experiences I’ve seen in a wealthy school district, where “all kids can learn” is the mantra.
Yes, we live in a segregated society where more black men are in prison than in college. But let’s go back to kindergarten. Even before they’ve met these kids, many teachers have looked at the names on their roster and shown colleagues how many Daquans and Tremains they’ll have to manage. From the first day, while much of the class is frisky in line, I have heard those same names reprimanded at a rate which far exceeds that of the white boys. The frisky white boys may be ignored, but Daquan is on everyone’s radar. All the time. Far beyond kindergarten.
I believe the most important factor in a classroom is the emotional tone- teacher acceptance and nurturing. Do you think black boys feel they belong? After eating breakfast at school with other kids of color, they enter a classroom which is mostly white, with mostly white adults. (Usually, the only black males they see are custodians.) Teacher expectations are low, couched in terms of “low income” and “poor language skills.” Even though specific teaching methods can level the playing field, I believe it’s that not-so-invisible exclusion, the not-so-invisible low bar, which extinguishes that sparkle in black boys’ eyes and hearts.