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.


A Familiar Feeling, But Worse This Time

Via Facebook

Via Facebook

If your phone rings at 5:30 in the morning, it’s never good news.

Yesterday morning, long before my alarm was due, my phone started vibrating on my dresser. I muttered several expletives to myself and rolled over planning to ignore it. Then my brain started turning through a cavalcade of worst case scenarios. I tried to go back to sleep, but that lasted about two minutes. Then my phone vibrated again. “Fine,” I muttered and went to check who it was. It was a simple, brutal, life altering text from my principal: “According to kids it looks like Elijah Crawford was killed last night.” I don’t really remember the next two hours.

Elijah was the most energetic student I have ever taught. He drove me up the wall freshmen year. But, over the next three years I had the pleasure of watching him grow, mellow slightly, and turn into one of the hardest working students I had last year. He was a captain of the wrestling team. He sat in the front seat in my AP Government class. He grinded for me like no other student last year. And I remember how proud of him I felt as I read his name last June at graduation. Now I can’t believe he’s gone.

We’ve lost kids before, we lost Chandler and Hector in the last few years. Last year, we lost Jalon--that one really hurt me too. But I have never felt a loss this personal.

The next thing I remember was finding his math teacher in her classroom. She also had a very close relationship with Elijah. We had just discussed a few days prior how much we missed him--now he was gone. We hugged and cried in her doorway for what seemed like an eternity. I was a mess; she was worse. Neither of us knew what to say. We just cried. There really aren’t words for moments like that, if there are I certainly am not smart or composed enough under pressure to know them. We just cried.

It was Election Day and I had an armful of Voters’ Pamphlets to use in Government with me. As I shuffled past pockets of students, some with tears in their eyes, other completely unaware of what had happened, I just cried.

My next clear memory was right before the bell rang for my first class. Tears again welled up in my eyes and as I greeted seniors at the door. I was informed that about a third of my class was downstairs with the district crisis team. I wished I was with them. I appreciate that my district has protocols in place for moments like this, but at the same time, there really aren’t protocols for moments like this.

Throughout the day people kept asking me “are you okay?” “how are you holding up?” “you, good B?” my answer to each one was the same: “I am a mess.” I was a mess and remain a mess as I type this. I keep listening to The Mighty Rio Grande by This Will Destroy You. I keep welling up when I see one of the kids from the wrestling team in the hallway. I really lost it this morning when the (frustratingly effective) Twitter algorithm, recommended I start following him.

But I am glad I am upset. I shouldn’t be okay.

Society is far too willing to accept the violence that frequently takes the lives of young black men. The normalization of the deaths of young black males is a scourge on our society. It should shame us all. We should never be comfortable with the loss of young men with their entire lives ahead of them. The normalization of funerals, of candle light vigils, of impromptu street corner memorials are all sad commentary on our shortcomings as a culture.

In the coming days, there will be news reports and investigations. There will be a moment of silence at the football game. There will be tears. Tomorrow I will call his mother and see how I can help the family, but for now, I am not okay. 

None of us should be okay.  

On Hosting President Xi at Lincoln High School

This is my new friend Theo. He was as excited as I was about the whole thing so we ended up taking this photo after President Xi and the Secret Service departed.

This is my new friend Theo. He was as excited as I was about the whole thing so we ended up taking this photo after President Xi and the Secret Service departed.

One of the things that I really enjoy about teaching is the relative anonymity of the profession. We are public servants, but not public figures. I couldn’t imagine working in sales, marketing or politics where I was constantly meeting new people or trying to sell myself (in fact, the idea of that just gave me a chill). As a teacher at Lincoln, I work with a relatively stable staff. I have been there for seven years and at least half of the faculty predates me. I meet a new crop of kids and parents every year, but once I meet them, they’re familiar, we develop routines, become family even. Last week, while students were reading a Ta-Nehisi Coates article, I stood in the back of third period and realized I had eleven siblings of past students and two children of my former HS classmates in the class. Abe Nation is familiar turf for me and I am familiar to them. When I am teaching I am selling ideas and content, not myself. I am not the focus, the mission is.

The last week has blown a hole in all of that.   

I found out about the possibility of President Xi’s visit a while back. As time passed it went from “there’s this crazy idea that might go down, but probably nah” to “Secret Service vans parked by the Abe statue and snipers in the clock tower.” 

As a government teacher, hosting a head of state in your classroom (or one you borrowed for the occasion) is like an classic R&B fan sitting at the mixing board in Quincy Jones’ studio or a soccer fan playing pick-up with Messi or Ronaldo (pick your poison). China is the most populated nation on Earth. Twenty percent of all the people alive right now are Chinese. They are the largest economy on the Earth. China is the most powerful nation in Asia. China is a nation that I was fascinated by as a student and have had the pleasure to visit twice as an adult. I could go on… Having President Xi walk the halls of my school, stand in our auditorium, joke around with the football players from my third period--watching it all was whatever comes after things become surreal.

My favorite part of the visit though was the kids. It’s early in the year, I have all their names down, but we’re definitely still the rapport building phase. I was nervous about how they would behave. Would they understand how big a deal this was? Would one of the boys in the room try to be funny and instead create an international scene or worse get beatdown by Chinese Secret Service (yes, these were actual fears I was having).

After being screened by the Secret Service, while we were being briefed by a Chinese Protocol Officer (there were several, both officers and briefings) a student asked if they’d be allowed to shake the President Xi’s hand. I and the Protocol Officer both (belly) laughed. Fast forward an hour, when President Xi, after his conversation with my students and before departing under a blitz of camera flashes, reached out to shake hands with the front row of the room, there was an audible (and hilarious) burst of co-ed squeals. That moment… that moment, they’ll never forget. The kids were amazing. They got it the importance of the moment.

President Xi concluded his visit by addressing a crowd of nearly 500 students and community members and offering one hundred students from my school the opportunity to travel to China; it brought on a thunderous applause. I ended my night posing for photos and doing interviews with a half dozen Chinese media outlets. Many of you know I recently wrote about my love of travel and particularly my experience teaching and living in China. Now many of my students will have this same opportunity, decades younger than I was when I caught the bug. I hope they grow to love travel as much as I do. I hope it changes their lives as much as it changed mine and I hope that this week is more calm than the last.