“Just because we are magic does not mean we’re not real.”–Jesse Williams
My week began with a female student of mine coming forth with, “Miss, I need to read this ‘Write a letter to a character’ assignment to you. It’s three pages, and I worked really hard on it.” Of course I was going to listen. How could I turn her away?
Despite the attendance that needed to be taken, the advisory period that needed to be managed, and the ever present requests to go to the bathroom, I made space to hear my girl out. As she began, she kept pausing to tell me she was shaking and just how nervous she was. It seemed like she had to talk herself into reading the letter to me, and I wasn’t really sure why, until she got into the bulk of the letter. It revealed the many ways in which the school system had wronged her:
“In kindergarten my teacher told me I looked and smelled like cigarettes.”
“Then, in the first grade I had a substitute teacher and she and these kids were talking about being poor and being middle class or rich and out of all the kids she points at me and says, ‘Look at you, you’re poor, look at your shirt.’ And I remember that like it was yesterday because I grew up to find out what ‘poor’ meant, and it shocks me that a teacher would tell a little child that.”
“I have 4C type hair [the hardest hair to deal with out of the whole hair chart] and my mom didn’t know how to take care of my 4C type hair but she still tried and the teachers always looked down on me because of that.”
“In middle school I never really dealt with any racism from the teachers, but the kids were always racist. All the black kids would be racist towards me because I was the darkest girl. My whole 3 years were hell, not because of the teachers but because of the hate I received because of being black by other black students. Surprising huh? I was called ugly by every boy, I was made fun of by everyone. I got in a fight and lost which made school even worse.”
The letter, and conversation were intense. How was I, a person working within this system, supposed to respond?
Two things were immediately apparent to me: 1) This student did not feel like the educational system respected who she is–her identity. 2) It was imperative that I do what I can to restore her sense of self-worth and empower her to feel that she does matter and who she is IS accepted, wanted, needed–at least in my classroom. I could tell it was cathartic for her to be able to tell someone about all the hardships she had endured, so I let her speak. After she finished, I handed her my copy of Black Girl Magic by Mahogany Browne and had her read it.
Then, we talked about what it really means to be a Black Girl, and to be magic, but also…real. We also spoke about victimhood and how it is a passive state–that in order to enact change, we have to become active, to supercede the label of “victim” (though victimized we may have been) and remember that we are deserving of the best, so we have to demand exactly that from people, and institutions. I told her what I always tell people when conversations turn to the hardships I have faced in living this life as a woman of color–I am fortunate to walk the world in this skin, because although it means sometimes people will underestimate or try to silence me, I have a perspective that is unique, and a capacity for empathy that is unparalleled. I know she heard me.
The part of teaching too many teacher prep programs do not really prepare folks for is having to face trauma caused by the very system we perpetuate, then wrestle with what it means to actively work to create spaces of healing and love in environments that do not necessarily prioritize these things.
This week, during a PD on Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, the subject of childhood trauma induced by the school system came up again. Our PD began with this thought provoking video from Dena Simmons about “How students of color confront impostor syndrome”
Oddly, though there are several women of color on staff, not one of us was asked to talk about our experiences with the erasure of our identities. This was a missed opportunity for some real-world connections and also, another instance of folks overlooking us. The irony could not have been thicker. I’ve often heard it said that to be a woman of color in this world is to truly know what it feels like to be invisible. While men of color are “invisible” until they commit one of the innumerable offenses (sometimes, just being in their physical bodies) that draw attention to them, making them hyper-visible, women of color are too often dismissed as “angry” or ignored completely. This is my lived experience. After the video, there was a quick reaction whip-around, and then we moved on–for the sake of time.
We got off to a bit of a rough start: several of the white staff members grumbled at having to undergo, “yet another CRP PD that doesn’t align with the district mandates that we prioritize/push testing and test scores over everything else” and the women of color felt heated after having our experience glossed over. Even so, there was a lot that came from the PD that was good. I offer up my notes here as evidence of the deeper thinking and discussion that went on:
Some of the highlights for Close Reading as an Instructional Strategy: Find personal connections, chunk (or number) portions of the reading, stand and read (standing creates a sense of urgency), give a choice about the order in which foks read, give affirmation to “groaning students”.
Some of the highlights for Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: Invite people of color from the community into the school as role models so students can develop a schema for success that includes folks who look like them. Develop community partnerships so students can see their community as a place of pride and intrinsic worth/value. Teach students to love themselves by centering instruction on their lives, and remind them that you love them.
I couldn’t help but make connections between my student who didn’t feel she had a voice, or a choice in her education for most of her 11 years (she’s a Junior), and the conversations we were having about CRP. I couldn’t help but imagine what her life would have been like had she seen people of color from her community as role models and learned to love herself in part through seeing her image reflected in the curriculum and instructional methods.
In the hustle and bustle of urban education, so many things happen that are, for lack of a better way of saying it, I’ll use the Portuguese (because that’s what comes most naturally to me) “sem querer” or “without wanting to”. I ask, if we truly seek change, if we are truly about the business of imagining a better future, when are we going to stop allowing, “I didn’t mean to/I didn’t mean it that way” to be an acceptable response to potentially trauma inducing, marginalizing, silencing, or disenfranchising situations?
Yes, I’m a Black girl. I’m magic–but I’m also real. My realness means I have parts of me that might always remain raw, and open, from wounds inflicted– and past wrongs. My realness means I have been silenced at times, but also, that I have risen up to become someone who rejects the passivity of victimhood in exchange for the activism it takes to fight for a better educational system, experience, and future, not only for girls and women like me–but for everyone.
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