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.


30 Americans: Having Difficult Conversations through Art

Duck, Duck, Noose

Duck, Duck, Noose

The lowest grade I earned in college was in an art appreciation class. Don’t laugh. It was an evening class; I was a working student. I loved the class, but one evening when the lights went out for the slideshow, my lights went out too. Three weeks later, I bombed the final because I apparently slept through a lecture on Cubism and was helpless on the essay I was supposed to write on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. I’m still bitter.

As an adult, I’ve grown to  love art and the museum experience. I worked at the Museum of Glass in graduate school. When my spouse I travel we always hit the local museum. I see art as a worthwhile distraction and museums as a sanctum--places to pause and to ponder.

Context matters. Recently, after getting strong recs from several friends, I went to the Tacoma Art Museum to see their 30 Americans Exhibit. In 2015, TAM (rightfully) caught holy hell from the black and progressive communities in Tacoma. TAM curated and hosted a reflection on the history of HIV/AIDS in the US that largely excluded the voices and the experiences of black Americans and artists. Like many social, economic, and health issues communities of color are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. Their exclusion drew loud, sustained, public (and IMO justified) protests.

There was “die-in” protest, charges the museum was "erasing black people," and several articles in local media outlets called out the museum’s curatorial practices. Christopher Paul Jordan, a local artist and one of my favorite minds in our community was blistering in his criticism. He told the News Tribune “AIDS has absolutely affected art history within black communities. This is beyond negligent. They’re not concerned with (black) stories. … This is not individual racism. It’s about a system within the museum that’s developed a white normativity. It’s a reflection not just of the museum but of Tacoma itself.”

This apparently provoked some introspection at TAM and one result of that introspection is the public programming around 30 Americans. 30 Americans is an exhibition of 30 black artists. To accompany it, TAM is hosting moderated panel discussions, a documentary film screening, a poetry slam, and several “free days” where people can experience the exhibit. The exhibit also has an interactive area where community members can leave their thoughts on pieces or review the feedback of others.

For this exhibit, TAM also reached out to the “old-guard civil rights community” (a conversation for a different day) and created an advisory committee to help with community promotion and engagement. This is a step in the right direction. When I worked at the Museum of Glass in the early aughts, I was often the only person of color--and rarely ever saw another black face--at museum events. A decade & change later, when I walk into the MoG and TAM, it feels much the same way.  Though this exhibit suggests progress, it’s clear that TAM (and the Tacoma museum community writ-large) have a ways to go.

The exhibit itself. I am not an art critic and I’m not going to play one here. That said, here are some pieces that gave me pause or provoked an especially strong emotional response.

Duck, Duck, Noose is the centerpiece of the exhibition and the first thing you see when cresting the ramp from the main lobby. It’s a lot to take in... especially, when seen in juxtaposition to Glenn Ligon’s America, whose glowing presence on the north wall looms ominously over it.

I enjoyed both of these pieces, but appreciate even more what they are saying in concert. America’s racial history is complicated. My mother is from Arkansas; my father was from Mississippi. Their stories and why they left are in my bones. Most people, black and white, would rather not discuss it. But the historical influence of the Klan, particularly here in the Northwest is undeniable. Oregon was founded as a whites-only "racial utopia," the Klan marched through the streets of Bellingham well into the twentieth century, and don’t get me started on the white supremacist movement in Northern Idaho. This is our history. This is our inheritance. This is who we are.

Branded Head speaks to my Olympia, anti-corporate, No Logos, twenty-five year-old self, and I think I would use it as my point of entry in introducing my students to the exhibit. Brand loyalty has always perplexed me, particularly the devotion to shoe companies among the non-athletic. Branded Head is muted and understated. But, it also stayed with me throughout my time in the gallery. This is the reproduction in the section in the gallery set aside for community engagement. You can see my scribbles.

Sleep. When I visited his exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, earlier this year, Kehinde Wiley immediately became my favorite living painter. Period. His specialty is reframing classic and classically styled paintings by replacing the subjects with black youth. He works on a massive scale. Sleep measures 132” x 300.” Wiley’s work represents a pointed critique of our absence from the art world--the core of last year’s protests--I rarely see people who look me in museums, unless we're working. Wiley’s work is jarring in how bluntly he points out the marginalization of blackness, while simultaneously mocking the odd composition and poses of many classic portraits. Sleep isn’t my favorite Wiley piece, but I think it is very representative of his work and aesthetic.

I have my issues with 30 Americans and you likely will as well. But, that’s talk for tea or cocktails. Its public programming is TAM’s attempt to respond to critics and engage the community. I’m listening, not satisfied, but I'm listening.

Check out the exhibit now through January 15, 2017. If you’ve visited already, I welcome your thoughts and comments below.


A Teacher Travelogue: On What Travel Reminds Me

Me, having a very spiritual moment with a baguette in Paris

Me, having a very spiritual moment with a baguette in Paris

As teachers we never really stop teaching and learning. Sometimes the venue changes, but we are constantly thinking about how we can apply what we’re seeing and experiencing to our practice. This is true, especially during the summer.

Travel has become an essential part of my life and my travel contributes to my ever evolving worldview. In early spring 2007, halfway through my first year of teaching, my grad school roommate Pete (now a fourth grade teacher in Yakima, WA) and I hatched a plan to go abroad. As first-year teachers, our sole criteria for deciding our destination was cheap airfare. We found a sub-$700 flight to Bogota, on a now defunct travel site. At age 27, I secured my first passport and took my first (non-military) trip abroad. We spent four weeks traveling through Bogota, Santa Marta, Cartagena and the Caribbean Coast. I used my college Spanish for the first time. I sailed for the first time. I hitchhiked for the first time. I went SCUBA diving for the first time. I bathed in volcanic mud. I ate a fish so fresh out of the water, the fisherman was still unloading the rest of his haul when I began eating it.  

I was hooked.

For the last ten years, at the end of the school year, I have packed the same red & black backpack and headed abroad. My travel partner has changed, but the ritual remains the same. This summer I spent four weeks with my wife Hope, an English teacher, traveling through Western Europe: Germany, France, Spain and Portugal. Travel is essential to me. We have to forgo some “wants” during the year to afford it, but it’s worth it. My wife jokes about "Travel Nate," an alternate version of me, who is less harried, less tense, and more at ease. When I travel I get headspace to reflect on my practice. I get time to read all the books I wanted to read during the school year. I feel like a yoke of grading and obligation is removed from my neck. I feel peace: something that is far too rare for people in the US, especially people of color, people in poverty and even NFL quarterbacks.

A mural along the Rhine in Mainz, Germany

A mural along the Rhine in Mainz, Germany

Early in our trip, after I posted a photo online, a colleague and mentor in the profession, asked “what does it feel like to be black in Germany?”

I responded: I always feel “more free” when we travel… But knowing what's happening back home, right now even more so… It's hard to put into words... I feel black + carefree and I haven't felt that way in a long, long time.

When I travel, my brain works differently. I see things here differently. My understanding of America is sharpened by even a brief absence from it. I believe that if you want to be truly awake, you have to leave home. I think most importantly, travel provides me with distance to consider my life back home, what I prioritize, my habits, my consumption and my aspirations. Travel reminds me that there are better, smarter ways.

Travel reminds that US media coverage is problematic and I need to seek and encourage my students to pursue alternative sources. I spent this summer watching France 24 (their English language network), Deutsche Welle (Germany) and CNN International. I was struck by the expansive and nuanced nature of CNN International’s coverage of events in the US and abroad. Over the last year, in the US, CNN has “distinguished” itself with problematic coverage, commentary and HR choices. But this summer reminded me that CNN hasn’t forgotten how to “do news.” They choose to fill their US coverage with the likes of Wolf Blitzer, former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski, and (jive) Don Lemon. CNN gives their international audiences investigative reporting, searing documentaries and in-depth analysis of events with historical context. We get clownish coverage: gigantic countdown clocks to trivial events, talking heads who are ideologues rather than experts and massive chyrons that fill ⅓ of the screen, but don’t actually tell you anything. We get louder, inferior, less informative coverage, because that’s what sells.

The view of Old Town in Porto, Portugal from the Cathedral

The view of Old Town in Porto, Portugal from the Cathedral

Travel reminds me of the proper role of law enforcement in a civil society. Police killings are a uniquely American problem—something I remind my students of while discussing civil liberties in government class. While we were abroad, at least 95 people were killed by US law enforcement. Victims 630 through 725 of this year. Travel reminds me that issues of race, justice and policing should be at the forefront of many of our classes this year.

Just before I left for Europe, Minneapolis school cafeteria worker Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by police. Both were killed at the end of what should have been routine encounters with law enforcement. These encounters were routine alright—part of a routine that allows the normalized killing of unarmed Americans by people otherwise sworn to protect and serve them. This fall students will show up to school in Minneapolis wondering “where Mr. Castile went? This September, Castile and Sterling’s children will be in our schools. These children—fatherless because of the actions of other agents of the state—will be in our classrooms. What will we say to them? How will we comfort them?

Travel reminds me there is a better way. Traffic stops should not end in murder. People should not be incarcerated for profit. Other industrialized nations don’t fund local government programs through revenue from red light cameras, placed largely in their poorest neighborhoods. They do not allow civil asset forfeiture [the practice of police seizing private property (or funds) they allege have been used in criminal activity for department use and budgets]. These are our problems alone.

Travel reminds me I have nothing to fear from “the Other.” We arrived in Europe four days after the attack in Nice. We expected to find anxiety and fear. We found none. Despite a very real threat from international terrorism, they do not live in constant fear. I want my students to inherit a world where they don’t have to be afraid.

Our view atop the Arc de Triomphe

Our view atop the Arc de Triomphe

Travel reminds me of the importance of our work. As an educator I get to teach my students a series of lessons, academic or otherwise about government, geography, character and life. As we prepare to return to school, my travel has reminded me that we have an obligation to prepare our students to be active participants in civil society. We must model for them how to thoughtfully question authority. We must implore them to question the underlying and unstated premises of arguments they’re presented with. We must push them to listen to understand, rather than listening to refute. We must teach them to believe more in discourse and less in debate. We must teach them to love to read and to read to grow.

This is the work of teaching. We get to help set students on their paths. We get to leave our cognitive fingerprints and habits of inquiry on the next generation. We get to plant seeds. Helping kids become curious about the world isn’t on my evaluation, but it's probably the most important thing I do. This work can’t be tested or assessed by the SBAC—it’s too important for that. It doesn’t fit neatly into an ELA standard, but it’s why we do what we do.

Travel reminds me of that.