A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post about kids and classroom behaviour. The same week that I wrote it, the same week that I laughingly remembered some of the things my friends and I got up to in 8th grade, the same week that I blithely assumed that my long-ago teachers “didn’t write Michelle off or worry that she would turn out to be a bad one” – implying, of course, that they didn’t write off any of us – that very same week, Matthew Morris wrote something very different in his post What My Teachers Were Saying About Me.
Matthew, a Black male educator in an elementary school in Toronto, wonders what his teachers were saying about him and his friends back when they were in school, in part because he hears what other teachers are saying *right now* about the students in front of them. And the conversations he overhears – “(that boy) is gonna’ end up in jail. Kid just doesn’t know how to get out of his own way” or “(that girl) is going to end up pregnant by 16, watch” – are not the ones that I was imagining in my post.
As I read his post, my heart sank: no matter how many times I encounter it, I am always shocked when I find another way I experience privilege. I never – never – wondered if my teachers said bad things about me. I mean, maybe they got annoyed with me or kids like me, but I don’t think a single one of my teachers ever sat in a staff room and predicted a negative life outcome for me. Nor did they think that any of my friends – no matter how outrageous – were going to end up pregnant at 16 or in jail. Now, I should be clear that there were no Black students in our magnet program in suburban South Carolina. We were smart wealthy white kids. We were going places.
Never mind the fact – the FACT – that a boy in the class above me, a nice smart rich white boy, actually *did* end up in jail while we were still in high school. Never mind the fact that I know of at least two girls who *did* end up pregnant while we were still in high school – and I’d bet there were more.
What does it mean to live in a world where you have every reason to suspect that the people who educate you, who are supposed to be helping you create pathways to your future, also think that you are likely to go nowhere? What does it mean to live, instead, in a world where even your bad behaviour is written off as youthful indiscretions? What does it mean that the colour of a child’s skin might be -no, is – the difference between these two things?
A few years ago I attended a conference that brought together teachers, support workers, and school resource officers – a community of support. One of the keynote speakers that year was a police chief from the States who had transformed the way her department dealt with kids whose parents were involved with drugs, many of whom were Black children. She told a “before” story about an officer at a drug bust handing a baby over to a social worker and saying, “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you in about 16 years.” The social worker nodded in resignation. A baby. A BABY. The very people who were supposed to be protecting this child had already decided their life’s outcome. And statistically, they weren’t wrong.
I cried after her talk, but the future chief didn’t bother with crying. She got to work and changed the way the community handled these children. She made sure that children’s futures were not about their skin colour or their parents’ faults. She created a community of support, looked at the systemic problems and made changes.
I’ve been thinking about Matthew’s post for a week now, and I’ve been thinking about that police officer. I’ve been thinking about what my teachers said about me and what Matthew’s teachers said about him. I’ve been thinking an awful lot about what I hear other teachers saying as well as what I say or believe about the children in my classroom and in all the classrooms in the school.
I think it’s time for me to be 100% sure that my students know how much I believe in them. In twenty years when they look back at their schooling, I hope their memories are like mine – full of the certainty that the adults in the school buoyed them up, even behind closed doors – and not like Matthew’s. Every child should be lifted by the adults around them. That should not be a privilege but a given.
PS – You should follow Matthew. His voice is powerful. https://www.matthewrmorris.com/