My Mom Had to Lie to Get Me Into a Good School

NoteThis post originally appeared on Education Post. After its publication I was contacted by several of my old teachers from Stanley, the elementary school my mom got me into. I am insanely thankful to Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Winterhouse, Mrs. Bullock and all the staff from Stanley who taught me then and support and follow my work today. I was also contacted by classmates from Tacoma Montessori, which is how I got my hands on that dope class of '86 photo (Thanks Kati).  

I, like all Black Americans, am keenly aware of the gobsmacking contradictions that come with being Black in America.

Both of my parents fled the South in the 1960s to Washington State, roughly 20 years before I was born. I went through public school during the decline and eventual destruction of federally mandated school desegregation. For six years I proudly served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, before leaving in 2003 in protest of the Iraq War. For a time, I was vice president of my college Republicans club. I hugged and lifted my teary-eyed mother off the ground, while my friends beat pots and pans in a spontaneous neighborhood parade on election night in 2008. I dabble from time-to-time in respectability politics, but believe vehemently that #BlackLivesMatter.

I am a 37-year-old Black male who teaches American government and politics at a school that is 80 percent students of color in a state that is roughly 80 percent White.

In my classroom, we spend a significant amount of time talking about the gaps between the values we espouse as a nation: liberty, justice, individualism, meritocracy and the reality that we witness on a daily basis: segregated schools, segregated housing, disproportionate law enforcement and sentencing, inequitable school funding, reduced life expectancy and other indicators of systemic racism.

This is the American dilemma: there is no other nation in the world where people who look like me do as well, yet no other nation has such a dogged and continued history of marginalizing and abusing those same folks. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of education.

As a young child, I was blessed to attend a phenomenal, private Montessori school for the early stages of my education. I have clear memories of sign language and Spanish lessons, hands-on science experiments about the physiology of a sunflower, and the shocking experience of seeing the chemical reaction when vinegar and baking soda are mixed for the first time.

I had a predictable routine. Every morning, my mother would drop me off at school on her way to work and every evening my grandmother would come and pick me up. Grandma and I would ride the #27 bus down MLK, past the bank and the local pool, back to her house where she would help me with my letters and numbers…then reading…then, as I aged, homework until my mother could pick me up and take me home for dinner.

This was my routine: mom, Montessori, slippers, learning, copious snacks, grandma, learning, mom, dinner, TV or reading (usually not TV), bed. Wash, rinse and repeat.

At the school, I also recall being one, along with my friend Sterling, of only two Black children. This was a harbinger of what was to come. As my neighborhood, Tacoma’s Hilltop, descended into drug-fueled gang violence in the 1980s, my school closed up shop and moved to whiter pastures, in a nearby suburb. The building remained vacant for years and at one point in my early adulthood, it was turned into a funeral home—a poignant reminder each time I passed by it.

My mother put me in the Montessori because she lacked faith in my neighborhood school. With my Montessori’s closure, my mother, ever resourceful, ever the advocate, went around the system. She lied. She used her church friend, Sister Crawford’s address, to get me enrolled at a school focused on the arts and sciences. I do not believe I would be the man I am—the teacher I am—without her lie.

But, in a nation as wealthy as America, no parent should have to lie about their address to get their child into a high-quality school. Sadly, I have heard this same tale from many, many other Black families. She did the same when it was time for me to go to high school. For my sake, she lied.

I think about this often when I stand before my own classroom today. What would Black parents say about my teaching and the way I treat their children? How do I best make my classroom a place where parents know their children are valued? How do I make my classroom a place where students feel safe and loved? How do I make my classroom instruction relevant to their lives and needs? These are the preconditions for effective teaching and learning. These are questions every educator should ask themselves every day.

As Washington State’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, I visited numerous schools and talked with hundreds of teachers across our state. My lone, lingering frustration from that experience is my anger at walking the halls of a school filled predominately with Brown students and happening on an International Baccalaureate (IB) history class that was Whiter than the Trump cabinet.

It is infuriating, but also painfully common. Students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) and IB classes are challenged to do college level work, while in high school, are statistically more likely to go onto college, and more likely be successful there. Denying children of color access to these classes—particularly at majority Brown schools—is an act of callous racial injustice, but also common practice across the country.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Throughout most of my life, the school where I teach was the lowest-performing high school in our district. That’s not the case anymore. We now graduate over 80 percent our students on time, over 45 percent of our kids are enrolled in an AP class. We are at capacity and have a waiting list to get into the school, despite the recent opening of a charter school nearby.

My AP classes are as diverse as the building itself and the neighborhood surrounding it. Last year nine starters from our football team, five of them Black males, passed the AP government exam—all of them are now in college. We’re living, breathing proof of what’s possible when we put our focus on the students.

District leadership has provided additional staffing and funding to our highest need schools. In my school we have a family support specialist—in others there are partnerships focused on keeping families in stable housing. I recently asked my mother, “Would you send me to McCarver [my old neighborhood school] today?” She replied, “Yes, yes I would.” This is a measure of progress we have made.

The fights in education shouldn’t be about models of schooling, but instead about the quality of the educational experience for the students. Kids of color and low-income students deserve great teachers, great schools, access to challenging courses and they shouldn’t have to lie to get them.

 

My Resolution to Talk Like I Teach

Photo from Flip the Media

Photo from Flip the Media

I think New Year’s Resolutions are dumb. I thought about joining a gym for about 15 seconds on January 1, but quickly came to my senses. That said, one of the major “learnings” I am taking from 2016 is about the power of the language we use in teaching, politics, and policy. The terms we use, or allow others to use, establish the realm of possibility and the space for policy negotiation.

In my class, I decline to use the loaded political terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice”. The people who support the death penalty, oppose even modest gun control laws, refuse to condemn excessive use of force by law enforcement, and cheerlead calls to bomb half the nations in South West Asia (I also teach them not to use the Euro-centric nomenclature Middle East) do not deserve to be called “pro-life”. Instead, we use the more accurate and neutral terms "supporters of abortion access” or “supporters of abortion restrictions”.

I think about this often when reading the news. Much of our political discourse happens in terms created by and to benefit those with power and wealth. We unblinkingly use the term “right-to-work” to describe laws designed specifically to weaken unions and their power to collectively bargain. These laws have led to the hollowing out of the middle class and have directly contributed to lower standards of living and wages among “economically anxious” workers in the Rust Belt--the same Rust Belt that Donald Trump swept in the election.

Arguably, the biggest failing of the Obama Administration was conceding to the GOP’s use of the term Obamacare, rather than the Affordable Care Act or ACA. The administration called it Obamacare, the media called in Obamacare, Democratic strategists called it Obamacare, and public approval for the program consistently hovered around 47%. A recent poll showed that approval for Kentucky’s implementation of the ACA is thirty points more popular than “Obamacare” among Kentuckians, even though they’re the exact same thing.

President Obama (unwittingly) allowed a program that provides healthcare to 20 million Americans to become a referendum on him. Now, GOP zeal about repealing the ACA is largely about handing him one final humiliating “L”. All this, even though the individual mandate was originally a Republican policy, even though the program is modeled largely on Massachusetts’ health care program, created by Republican Mitt Romney. They hate Obama, so they hate Obamacare… even if they’re on it. The administration should have seen that coming.

We have to get smarter about the words we choose and how we engage those we seek to persuade. When coastal, college educated, know-it-alls (points finger at self) traffic excessively in jargon we are talking over the heads of folks we need on our side and who share our interests and aspirations.

There are lessons to be learned from the classroom here, dear reader. One of the reasons I am an effective humanities teacher is because I convey complicated ideas in an easily digestible manner; I constantly introduce gestures, create analogies, explain metaphors from pop culture, and on a rare occasion break out a rap. Once understanding is established, I codeswitch to introduce the academic vocabulary for the concept. I teach freshmen about the different types of migration (chain, forced, asylum and labor) by giving historical examples and then assigning each a gesture. Simple language first, then the technical follows.

I plan to keep my classroom in mind this year when talking about education and tax policy. For example, Washington State has the most regressive tax system of any state in the nation. According to The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the poorest 20% of Washingtonians pay 16.8% of their annual income in taxes; for the wealthiest one percent of Washingtonians the number is 2.4%. This creates an unfair burden that harms already struggling low to moderate income families.

Every single person working in the Governor’s office and every member of the Washington State Legislature knows this is true, but for a host of reasons--overly wonky communication by advocates, a slew of corporate campaign spending by opponents, partisan opposition to "all things tax" by one party in the legislature--the sensible solution, one embraced at the federal level, and by 43 states--a progressive income tax is off the table and our schools suffer as a result.

This is at the core of the school funding issues we face in Washington State. But saying our taxes are “overly regressive” is just economic jargon to most. This needs to be put plainly: “If Washington State had Idaho’s tax system (and rates) our schools, mental health and transportation infrastructure would be much better funded.” Y’all, Idaho. This is my begrudging resolution this year--to plain-talk to folks about matters of education, justice and economics that impact my students and my community.

I thought about joining the gym this year, but I think this suits me better.

Trump: My Glass is Half-Empty

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If your Twitter handle begins with “Deplorable” this post probably isn’t for you. If you believe that Confederate iconography represents some mythical, noble, lost-cause heritage, rather than a treasonous, white-supremacist misadventure, you should press Ctrl+W. If you are willing to explain away the rise in racial and religious attacks, especially those targeting students, in the post-election period, please, for both of us, move along.

My parents came from Jim Crow Mississippi and Arkansas. I know the tales of their youth. I am reminded of these stories as I read the news today. The president-elect of the United States has stated his desire to deport the relatives of many of my students. In the post-election period, his supporters have suggested, because of their religion, registering many of my students in a national database. Before the election, the president-elect said that half of my students deserve to have their bodies violated, if it suits a powerful man’s whim. During a debate, the president-elect said to a quarter of my students, that the path to racial reconciliation in America was through “stop & frisk” and more aggressive law enforcement in black communities. This is opposite of progress.

This isn’t a partisan take. I have voted Republican before. I voted for two Republicans this fall. The Trump administration, his proposed policies, his juvenile temperament, all represent an existential threat to the America that I love—and that I served for six years.

I spent the last two weeks trying to get my head around election night. It fits the historical pattern, but it’s still disconcerting. Every major period of racial progress in America has begat a reactionary retrenchment: Reconstruction saw the rise of the Klan in the South; Johnson’s War on Poverty, Civil Rights Act, and Voting Rights Act preceded Nixon’s landslide victory via the Southern Strategy and dog whistles; now, the first black President, first black First Lady and first two black Attorneys General will be replaced by Donald, Melania, and Jeff Sessions respectively.

The nomination of Jeff Sessions is especially emblematic of the regression that the Trump Administration represents. In 1986, Sessions was nominated for the federal bench by President Reagan, but he was deemed too racist then to be confirmed by the Senate. In the interim, the voters of Alabama have elected him to the US Senate (several times) and he is now a confirmation vote away from becoming the chief law enforcement officer of the nation. I thought we were better than this.

I used my role as 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year to talk about uncomfortable truths and realities for students of color and students in poverty all over my state. The election hits even closer to home. Many of my students are deeply concerned: Will he deport my mother? My brother has ongoing health issues; will we lose our health care? Will he deny me the right to marry another woman? Will he make me register, since I am a Muslim? These are a few of the questions I have fielded over the last two weeks. Will he? Will he? Will he?

In my government class, we often talk about how the most consequential presidencies are the result of one party rule. Republican rule, Lincoln through Grant, led to three Constitutional Amendments (13-15). Democratic rule gave us The New Deal, Glass-Steagall, AFDC (welfare), and Social Security. Again, Democratic rule, under Johnson brought us the Civil Rights Era. We have handed to Donald J. Trump—the only person ever elected to the presidency without prior governing or military experience—unified government, a Supreme Court nomination, and nearly enough state legislatures under control of his party to amend the US Constitution and cement his policies into our most revered document for generations. We have slept walked into a full blown renegotiation of the social contract—a New New Deal or the Old Deal—if you will.

I can’t look my students in the eye, lie to them and say it’s all going to be okay. I don’t know that it will. We live in dangerous times, particularly for communities of color and those on the economic margins of our nation. In his book “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” Chris Hedges described the descent into ethnic cleansing and genocide in post-Soviet Yugoslavia. Data from exit polling shows us we have entered an unprecedented era of tribal voting. Trump won the white vote by larger margins than Ronald Reagan—Ronald-effing-Reagan. The president-elect has a white-nationalist leader working as his senior adviser. Brietbart and Fox News could serve as Eastern Bloc style quasi-state news agencies. Neo-Nazis and leaders of the Klan have heralded his election. The attacks and violence we have seen across the nation echo the early pages of Hedges’ book. I’m not suggesting we are headed down that path to Milosevic, but it is now a non-zero probability.

I have no time for your pleas to “wait and see.” You can keep your false equivalence arguments. I have no interest in any of it. We have entered an age of uncertainty. The sole check on Trump’s authority are the Federal Courts and Congressional Republicans. That thought should send a shiver down your spine.

Throughout US history, teachers (especially black teachers) led struggles for justice: guiding freedman in the transition from the agrarian to the industrial after Emancipation, leading and modeling democratic citizenship in protests during the civil rights movement. My teaching license literally says “Humanities Teacher.” I will not sit idly by while the very humanity of my students is questioned and renegotiated. This is the work ahead.

We must lead.