The Making of a Scholar

by Anti-Racist Parent guest contributor Vera L

This past Martin Luther King Day, my partner and I took our two boys to San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. We looked at photographs and charts detailing how the foods of Africa had migrated to cultures across the world. The boys played with an interactive exhibit about the African roots of different styles of music. As we explored the museum, we noticed a small screening room, and stepped in to watch a short documentary about Howard Thurman, an influential thinker in the Civil Rights movement. The film included the familiar (to me, if not yet my sons) footage of non-violent civil rights demonstrators being beaten back and hosed-down by southern law enforcement. But the image most striking to me, and from the look on his face, to my son, was the footage of a slowly circling picket line of young black men in suits and hats with placards around their necks that read “I Am a Man.” I talked to him about that image on the way to school this morning when he said he absolutely wouldn’t take the after-school science enrichment course I’d chosen for him, because “There are only white kids in that class. I don’t want to be the only black kid.” I repeated what I imagine hundreds of black mothers have said to their sons. “Those men you saw in that movie were marching for themselves and for you. They fought for your place in that science class, and you belong there.” He relented when I said that, and agreed to take the class. I felt like I’d won a small victory. But then I spent the next two hours volunteering in his classroom.

Oliver is in the third grade at a public elementary school in Berkeley, California. His class is a “difficult” one compared to the other third grade classes – lots of kids behaving badly, talking out of turn, needing reminders to pay attention, talking back to the teacher, practically begging to be corralled. I learned from a couple of the other teachers that this particular third grade cohort – all three of the third grade classes — has been a “challenging” group since they entered as kindergarteners, so that each year it has been hard for the school to make student assignments that create smoothly running classes. This year the assignments don’t seem to have worked out well for my son’s class. Oliver’s teacher welcomes parent volunteers. He needs the help.

There are 19 kids in the class, the same number (give or take a few) as every other third grade class in the Berkeley Unified School district. The class composition is also about the same – a wide distribution of skills and scholarly motivation, and a pretty even mix of kids of different races. The class has eight African American students, five white students, two Asian American kids, two biracial kids of Asian and white heritage, one Chicano child and one girl who just moved to the States from Yemen.

That morning, the class was involved in an activity called “literacy centers.” The teacher assigned me the job of working at the writing center, where the students had to write a letter to the drama teacher explaining the meaning of their class play.

I worked first with a group of three kids. One didn’t know how to put a sentence together, and didn’t seem to care whether she ever learned to. She hung over her neighbor’s shoulder, asking her what she was writing. She whined over and over, loudly, “I don’t know what we’re doing,” demanding that the other two tell her what to write. She put her head down on the table and sprawled her arms across it, crowding the boy across from her. When I asked her to sit up, she scowled. “I’m thinking.” She ended up writing very little. The second girl was smart – she immediately understood the task, and in response to my question rattled off a quick, clear summary of what she was supposed to do. She then spent the next 20 minutes having to be coaxed, chided and urged to write her ideas down. The third child, a boy, had more difficulty pulling the meaning of the play out of the facts of the story, but he tried, when he wasn’t succumbing to distractions from the first girl. He had an acceptable letter written by the end of the session.

The morning work’s continued that way, with me working my way through four different small groups made up of kids who had varying attitudes and abilities. There was a girl who did her work calmly and quickly, and within the allotted twenty minutes came up with a good description of the play, though she didn’t have much to say about the point it was trying to make. There was my son, who stared off into space sighing, and needed to be nudged to write anything. He kept saying, “What else do I have to write? Am I done?”

The exception was the largest group, made up of nine kids, about half the class. Six of them were very literate (as third-graders go) and self-directed. They worked with almost no guidance. Each of these six brought their finished letters to me to review. They’d come up with “readings” of the play that were clear, engaging, and sometimes even funny. I imagined that the drama teacher would enjoy reading those letters.

I was grateful for the competence of the first six, because the remaining three kids in that group consisted of a boy who threw balls of paper across the room, a girl who spoke very little English, and another boy who couldn’t tell me what happened in the play, let alone its underlying meaning.

None of the eight black kids in the class (my son included), nor the sole Latino child, was in the group of students who performed well.

What I saw in the classroom numbed the feeling of victory I’d had earlier that morning – the feeling that I could soften, maybe erase, the effects that everyday racism has on my son. That day in the classroom, I saw that Oliver’s teacher was not there for him, as I wanted him to be there for my son. He was there for a class of 19 students of varying abilities, many with needs much bigger than Oliver’s. It would not be his teacher’s job to unearth whatever it was that prevented Oliver from diving eagerly into his writing assignment, to take the time to draw Oliver out, and to help him creating a sparkling piece of work. There was too much else there for the teacher to do. And my eyes kept returning to the striking fact that not one of the star students in that class was black, not even my very intelligent son, a boy whose state test results had ranked him above the 90th percentile in reading and math. The phenomenon I saw playing out in front of me, ensnaring my child, has a name: “The Achievement Gap.” There have been articles, books, Ph.D theses written in an attempt to understand the persistent gap in academic success between black and white students. I kept asking myself how it happened that my son seemed to be caught in that web already.

When Oliver was in the first grade, he told me that his friend Sean accused him of “acting white.” I whispered to myself, “Oh no, not already – he’s too young!” I kept my voice casual as I could and asked, “Why do you think he said that?” “Because I was doing what the teacher told me. He said I shouldn’t. Why is that acting white?” I tried to explain it to him, struggled with putting the concept of “internalized racism” into words that made sense to a six year old. I wanted him to understand, right then, in that moment, that black does not equal bad. I needed to tell him about all the black people in his life, in his world, in history who tried their best and succeeded. I drowned him in the flow of a lecture. It was too much, because I was not only talking to him – I was talking to all the other kids who’d said the same thing to me as I moved through my school years.

I was a shy kid, and an excellent student. I sat in class quietly, did my work, never caused trouble, got straight A’s, never, ever fit in. I heard regularly through my grade school years that I was a smarty pants, teacher’s pet, stuck up, thought I was better than the other black kids, thought I was white. My social standing was complicated by the fact that my father was in the military and we moved every year or two. I was almost always the new kid, with no time to assess the social lay of the land at the school I happened to be attending, no history with a group of kids, no crew that had my back. So I stood out as easy pickings, my bookishness adding to my value as a target. I learned to endure it because I had to. In a way, all the teasing and isolation pushed me further into scholarship. Books became my friends.

Oliver, though, is different. He’s one of those well-rounded people: smart (with a strategic instead of bookish intelligence), athletic and a very social being. He would never voluntarily spend an afternoon with his head in a book, or alone daydreaming. No, he’s one of those kids who loves nothing more than a pick-up game with the guys. He does not like being an outsider.

His two best friends, both black boys, are not put off by his intelligence. Robert is an athletic kid who also wants to go college. But for Robert, college does not have much to do with intellectual pursuits. He sees it as a step to the NFL. He plans to get there by honing his athletic skills, not his academic talent. Sam is very bright – he was already reading when he entered kindergarten. Sam’s mother tells me that he, too, struggles with being a smart kid, wants to just be one of the guys, doesn’t want to be accused of “acting white.” Oliver, Robert and Sam are friends in large part because they share a love of sports. Their guiding star is Cal tailback Marshawn Lynch. The three boys and their larger group of friends at school take their cue for what it means to be a successful black man from the culture at large. Black men are valued as entertainers: ball players, rappers or soul singers, maybe actors. Being a student or a scholar — or even excelling at something other than entertainment — is not a mark of success.

The channeling of black boys onto a narrow life path starts very young. When Oliver was a baby, I was shocked at how many times some well-meaning person would look at the infant in my arms and say something like “So, you’ve got a basketball (or football) player there.” They’d say it smiling, looking at me for confirmation. As he moved into toddlerhood, I’d heard it so many times that I’d developed a stock response that I delivered deadpan, “No, he’s going to be a Supreme Court Justice.” I don’t remember anyone who knew quite what to make of that response. It would evoke a perplexed laugh, or a quick look to see if I was in my right mind.

As Oliver has grown older, I’ve looked for opportunities to keep his own view of his potential broad, hunted for different lenses through which he can see himself. I recently saw a documentary called “The Pact” about three black men who grew up in the same poor neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. The three had stayed in school, moved outside of the pull of forces that kept their friends in the ghetto, and had all become doctors. They started a foundation called “The Three Doctors” whose mission is to show black kids that there is value to being smart, to studying and doing well in school. Part of their approach in the documentary was to try to glamorize their lives, to compete with the cable shows that promise to take viewers “deep into the lives” of NBA stars showing off their homes and cars. The documentary moved fast, showed the doctors on their cell phones, changing from scrubs to suits and ties as they drove to an evening event, traveling to speaking engagements, walking into auditoriums of cheering people, rushing back to the hospital, late again because there was so much for them to do. In one part of the documentary, one of the men showed off the new bachelor apartment he’d gotten just after he landed his first job. As he walked around the apartment, followed by the camera admiring what he’d acquired, it struck me that he and his friends would have a hard time out-glamouring Shaquille O’Neal.

I had been volunteering regularly at my son’s school since he was in kindergarten, motivated by a non-altruistic reason. My presence at Oliver’s school has been a part of my attempt to make sure my son is seen as more than just a ball player. I started volunteering because I wanted to see for myself what was going on in my son’s classroom, and I wanted to make myself known to his teachers. I wanted to make sure I saw how his teachers responded to him, that I was there to ward off any racism, subtle or overt, that might come his way. I wanted his school to know that I was watching.

At the end of this particular morning with the third class, my regular volunteering over the past four years suddenly seemed a very small effort. My presence there in the classroom was a help, but not much. I had little real power over the culture outside of the classroom. Whatever would spur Oliver to excel in school in the face of evidence that “black boys don’t” would need to come from him, from some internal motivation or self confidence that would make it comfortable for him to stand out, apart from his friends. I had a visceral feeling of him moving away from me, out of my sphere of influence, away from my protection. He would be who he would be, have the experiences he would have, approach them with whatever enthusiasm or disdain he chose, regardless of me. I could be there to witness, to whisper in his ear, to point things out, to cajole, but I couldn’t do much more. He is beginning to define himself as a black student in culture that only recently began to see black men as men, let alone as scholars. The process is already in motion. He is nine years old.

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