It was in the third grade that I received a note from a boy in class. He crumpled the paper up and tossed it to a friend, who he then instructed to pass to me. It said, “I’m gonna’ get you, n****r.” His handwriting was scrawled and I hadn’t heard or read the word until that very moment. “N****r.” Looking back, it didn’t even register that the boy sending the note, the boy who looked at me so angrily, looked just like me. He too was a boy of color, and I had not realized the moment for what it was until much later in my life.
In the thick of one of the more divisive administrations in recent history, I think a lot about that moment with the crumpled note. I think about who I am each morning I wake before the start of first period; I teach at a school whose student body is predominately made of those of color, and currently this administration has made for much hallway and classroom conversation.
Teaching pedagogy dictates that you play the umpire. That, despite your personal code, your Omertà, you never don the jersey of the team you want so badly to play for. You simply regulate, you call fouls. What it does not clarify, however, is what to do when you have already been assigned a jersey. When you already play for a team whose numbers are slim and it behooves you to make some effort to keep your team in the game. After only a few years in the profession, the glaring truth I have come to discover is that I am quickly outgrowing this uniform of an umpire.
Recently, our third period English class read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and the supplemental text that provided an additional lens for us to analyze his work was Ava DuVernay’s Selma. A quick side note: in the field of the humanities, we have learned to treat mediums outside of novels and literary texts as still literary texts. Resources like John Lewis’ graphic novel March: Book One, DuVernay’s documentary film 13th and even Pablo Picasso’s master mural Guernica serve as appropriate mediums that fit the “Turing test” for text authentication. They also help to highlight the divisiveness that seemingly manifested itself overnight, but was well within the framework of the American psyche for much longer than we usually like to acknowledge.
With the surge in nonwhite student numbers in the country, it would seem appropriate to believe that the number of nonwhite educators is growing accordingly as well. Recent statistics, however, reveal the discouraging trend that educators of color are being less represented in the classroom. Earlier this year, Harvard Education Magazine reported that some 47,600 minorities became teachers in 2003-2004. The greater issues was that their study found by the end of the same school year, over 56,000 minority teachers left the profession—that is a 117 percent loss. As high school students prepare themselves to become 21st-century learners, the need for teachers who identify as members of marginalized communities grows greater. These interactions in the classroom are necessary in dissolving hostile dialogue between communities closed off from one another due to political, socioeconomic and cultural barriers.
During one of our lessons, a young man from my third period watched as DuVernay and company captured the volatility and barbarism that was the assault on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in one of Selma’s most profound scenes. He had his chin resting on a clenched fist.
“Mr. Michel, this is making me mad,” he said. I assured him that the pain of seeing Hollywood’s version begs the question of how bystanders and participates felt during the actual event. To which he replied, “Man, I don’t know what's worse: slavery, civil rights violence, or right now.”
There is immense wisdom in the honesty of high school students. Much like that young man in third period, I too often question how we compare to those moments in history that tried and tested those trapped in the margins. Human chattel, restricted civil rights, mass incarceration, a prison pipeline built right through the public education system. These topics require sincere exploration and an appreciation for the person teaching such a lesson who happens to part of an “out group.” One of the most essential steps in education is recruiting more teachers from disenfranchised communities. It has the potential to create positive conversation on issues like transgender rights, the treatment of LGBTQ members, law enforcement and police brutality, and mass incarceration.
We need educators of color, of differing orientations, of fluid identities. Not only that, but we need them engaging with our students about their lived experiences that will enlighten and inspire them. We need inclusion and diversity at the highest levels, considering how numbers at postsecondary school and beyond plummet for educators of color.
The country has reached a greater state of division since election night came and went, and it is safe to presume that division coming from a lack of understanding. It is necessary that we build bridges instead of walls, that we recognize huddled masses as still human and that we read into the lived experiences of those we label “other.” Otherwise, we may one day find ourselves having to explain to our children what that crumpled piece of paper actually means.
Jamal Michel is a Duke graduate and an English teacher at Northern High School in Durham. He is a featured guest columnist for The Chronicle.
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