“You took my son away from me! Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? Do you know how many black men graduate?”
I silently choked on the words of Mike Brown’s mother. Leslie McSpadden’s evaluation of the black male experience seemed painfully relevant.
I looked Jai’s new principal right in his eyes, “My son is not a pre-criminal.” He stared blankly into the wall behind me, not exactly making eye contact. He shifted his focus shifted down at his notes, probably confused as to why I felt the need to say such a thing days before my son even stepped foot through the doors of his school. After all it was JUST Kindergarten. Right?
I reached down and pretended to fix the strap of my shoe.
I exhaled and continued, “I put a lot of time and energy into my son’s education and I just want to be sure that his intelligence will not be overlooked in light of his race.” My whole body felt naked. I wasn’t sure that I was saying the right things. I wasn’t sure if I should even be there. And in that I moment I couldn’t remember exactly what I was trying to gain from this conversation.
A million sounds went off in my mind. In the room: silence. Two white faces awkwardly stared at the objects near my head.
Desperate to fill the thin space I searched for more words like a blind man in a dark and unfamiliar room. “I’ve heard good things about your school…I’m not trying to be accusatory. I just…I went to graduate school for education and…I read all this research about black boys and school discipline, underachievement, and the school to prison pipeline. And then so many of my guy friends…” Was I making sense? Heat rushed over my face. My eyes burned as I struggled to hold back tears.
And the conversation had started off so well. But I understood. I didn’t want to be there either. If things had worked out like I intended, I would’ve spent the afternoon shopping for tennis shoes to match the uniforms at the private school with African American administrators. I had high hopes for Chapel, Bible Study, foreign language lessons, Black History Month plays, and reading assignments on Booker T Washington. Unfortunately, neither my budget nor my schedule cooperated with that agenda. And so it was that the three of us found ourselves in this uncomfortable conversation.
What else could I say? That “I’m not a racist” and “I have a lot of white friends”? I really just wanted to be heard and understood. I wasn’t crazy. I was afraid. Genuinely afraid. All I knew was that Leslie McSpadden was absolutely correct and that my son, my precious baby, was well on his way to becoming a black man who IS going to graduate.
I examined my hands as I started again, “I just want my son to enjoy school and feel safe here. I don’t want him to start thinking that he’s a troublemaker or that he’s not smart because of the way the adults around him treat him…because he’s black..” As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I was asking more than they could guarantee and I wondered why ‘black’ is such a heavy word.
The Vice Principal took a deep breath as she lowered her glasses. “Ms. Bridewell I assure you that your son is in good hands. We are very….”
The rest of her words drifted somewhere beyond my attention. I couldn’t hear her over my thoughts. I felt so conflicted. Only I didn’t understand why. The feelings I expressed could not have been more sincere.
We thanked each other for taking the time to meet. I left.
That definitely happened in real life.
I’m not sure what kind of reputation I earned myself walking away from that meeting with the two most powerful people in my son’s school. And as “down” as I am for “the cause” that’s not exactly what I call a win.
Still, I’m a mother, raising a son in a world where space for black men has never been abundant or reasonable. Most of the time I tried not to think about it. Of course, it was not long before I was confronted with a flood of trending hash tags bearing the names of black men and boys murdered under the most unjust circumstances. I have found that as my son grows, so does the hostility toward him. And that’s not to exaggerate his “struggle.” He lives a highly comfortable and privileged life compared to many children. The irony, though, is that I am not sure that matters as much as I hoped it might.
Fortunately (if that word applies), my first encounter with unjust hostility towards my son was minor and happened when Jai was only two years old. It caught me completely off guard. I didn’t do anything about it. I didn’t say anything about it, because I was intimidated. And I have regretted it ever since. Three years later, I carried that regret right into that conversation with the principal and vice principal of Jai’s elementary school.
As I look back on all of it I am still conflicted. In some ways, I realize that conversation was a poor way to begin my relationship with those administrators. And in other ways, I take a great of deal pride in the fact that I swallowed my fears and marched my butt into that meeting all in the name of protecting my son.
The truth about it, though, is that I don’t want to unnecessarily make enemies with the people who spend nearly 40 unsupervised hours a week with my child. That is not ideal. I can’t afford to have an “it is what it is” attitude about that. At the same time , the message I communicated was strong and is still what I consider to be very necessary to Jai’s long term success.
There are 3 things I (still) want the administrators at Jai’s school to understand with a deep conviction:
- My son is not a pre-criminal. I will not allow him to be treated like one. I will not allow him to begin to believe that he is one. (On the flip side I have NO problem correcting bad behavior and acknowledging that he is not a perfect little angel.)
- My son is intelligent. That will be recognized and affirmed in a way that encourages him to perform at his highest potential.
- I am not playing games with anybody about #1 or #2.
While I stand behind that message, I made some critical mistakes in my execution of the delivery. First, I tried to communicate with words, things that could only be respected through actions. Second, I proposed problems to others, where I was the main solution. Given the fact that this conversation was not provoked by a set of specific events, there is a better way it could have been managed. In fact there are a few:
1. Our presence. Just by being around, you communicate protection. I don’t care how nice or well meaning a person is, there’s are just some things people won’t do to your children when you are present. There’s a tone they won’t take. Words they won’t use. That’s not limited to racial situations either. It’s just human nature. At the same time, it also sends a message to your child. There should be things he won’t do, a tone he won’t take, and things he wont say simply because you are present. But also, your presence gives you a first hand perspective on the energy around your child’s relationship with his teachers and school administrators. I’m not suggesting that you follow your child around school day in and day out. I am, on the other hand, suggesting that interactions between you and the school should occur a lot more frequently than parent teacher conferences and on better occasions than needing to address disciplinary actions towards your child.
-Making it a priority to attend parent teacher conferences, field trips, parent nights, and room parties when possible.
-Having lunch with your child on your off days.
-Dropping by the classroom during a lesson.
-Volunteering at school functions when possible
2. Our diligence. Being consistent and following through with the business end of working with your child’s school communicates a lot about you. It doesn’t just say that you turn in paperwork on time. It says you are a person who should be taken seriously. It also ensures that in the event of a conflict, they can not suggest that you failed to be responsible.
-Return paperwork and completed forms in a timely fashion
-Make sure your child completes and turns in his homework
-Make sure your child attends school regularly and on time.
-Attend the district board meetings (and politely greet your child’s principal if she or he is in attendance.)
-Pay the lunch account balance off (Word to myself! Pray for me y’all. I am at his school all the time and the lunch lady knows my name. She’s all like, “Ms. Bridewell, don’t FORGET to pay that lunch balance before you leave!”)
3. Our attention. We cannot afford to allow our children to wander aimlessly through the institution of Education. The numbers don’t lie about that. Our children, especially our sons, need to us to pay attention to what is happening. When we are attentive we have a much better chance of detecting molehills before they turn into mountains.
-Look through your child’s backpack everyday
-Read the paperwork the school sends home
-Go over your child’s homework everyday
-Talk about you’re child’s day. Ask questions.
-Make phone calls, send carefully worded notes or emails at the first sign of concern. And if necessary, schedule a meeting.
4. Our Words. Sometimes it is necessary to have difficult dialogue with your child’s teacher and school administrators. But your words should always come last. Not even children will take your words seriously when your actions do not support what you say. Words are almost useless on the front end, and if you are not present and paying attention enough to have a sober understanding about the situation, you can not use words effectively. Additionally, we have to be careful to communicate in a way that doesn’t undermine our integrity or our ability to be heard.
-Receive advice from a wise person that you trust to help you get your thoughts together before you go. (I failed to do that in the situation I mentioned above.)
-Intentionally decide what you would like to accomplish with the conversation (Another thing I didn’t do!)
-Calm down (if you are like me.)
-Listen to what the teacher or school administrator has to say. Weigh their commentary against your predetermined outcomes for the conversation. Sometimes we are working towards the same goals (even when we have different perspectives) and our words get in the way.
-Communicate your thoughts as calmly as possible and remember the purpose of the meeting is not to vent your emotions but it’s to move the conversation towards your predetermined outcomes.
-IF that doesn’t work GO OFF! Just kidding. (I got a good laugh out of that!) After that, depending on the situation, you may need to take a more serious course of action at higher levels of administration.
Station Identification: Your child’s teachers and administrators are not necessarily “the enemy.” They are actually some your strongest allies, when everyone is doing what they are supposed to do. I recognize that it’s not all schools, all teachers, or all principals. It is, however, a big enough problem for us to have legitimately coined the phrase “school to prison pipeline”. And THAT is unacceptable. It is not my intention to empower us to start a war with the schools. Instead, I want to empower us be active, engaged, and effective in guarding our children. That mission is not against the schools, “the man” or any one else–it is for our children.
As it turned out, my son really likes his school and so do I. Fortunately, the administrators had a very open mind about that conversation and I was able to move forward with a more open mind towards them. Jai even got to be student of the month! I’m not sure that’s relevant. I just wanted y’all to know that! 🙂
Stay Wonderful! 🙂