Suspended because I ‘didn’t know when to keep [my] mouth shut’

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[Editor’s note: During August, Catalyst Chicago is featuring op-eds from our archives that relate to current news in the education world. This column on one young black man’s experience with school discipline disparity is from our 2009 Catalyst In Depth, “Reaching Black Boys.”]  From kindergarten to 4th grade, I had serious problems in school. It started the day I came home and told my father that Columbus had discovered America, something that I had just learned in school. Instead of being excited about my “good news,” he had a reality check for me.

The following weekend, my father took me to the Museum of Natural History and showed me a map and then explained the realities of Columbus’ journey.  His story stood in stark contrast to the song my teacher had us singing in class with the lyrics, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” My father taught me that Columbus’ journey proved disastrous for the Taino people.

Once the lie was revealed, my 5-year-old mind told me teachers were no longer to be trusted.  From then on, I was labeled a “problem.”

As a child, my family supported my questioning of authority despite how much I got in trouble for it. While no one in my immediate family was an activist or organizer, they always conveyed to me their sense of justice. In their view, if something wasn’t right, it was the duty and responsibility of the person experiencing the injustice to address the issue head-on. As long as I was respectful in the process, they approved of me speaking my mind.

Unfortunately, the school I attended didn’t adhere to such beliefs.  My sense of justice led to a career of trips to the office, talking back to teachers, and all sorts of disciplinary infractions. I became the one in class who “didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut.”

In the end, these experiences influenced my decision to become an educator. Working with schools over the last 18 years, teachers and administrators often approach me about their black male “problem.”  As soon as I hear black male students referred to this way, I cringe.

In my 37 years of life, I’ve heard many claim they know how to solve the “problem” of being an African-American male, but few have attempted to get to know me—or other black males—personally, or to address systematically our issues and concerns.

Few have been bold enough to say that there was never a problem with me. The problem, rather, is society and the decisions I made when I didn’t understand the fallacy of conventional social perspectives on black males. Someone had to explain to me that when I had a raging fit because I felt mistreated, I was doing exactly what society expected me to do, what society is afraid I will do. In fact, when I physically reacted to unfair treatment, people in positions of power were provided greater leverage in rationalizing their decision to remove me from school.

Someone had to explain to me that teachers would respond more positively to me if, when I spoke up for myself, I organized my thoughts and actions to focus on changing my condition. For me, this happened in 4th grade when the teacher, Ms. Lester, told me that education is more than what happens in the classroom.  To her, education was the sum total of the decisions I made in life to change my condition and the conscious decision to work collectively with others to change conditions in my community. These lessons stuck with me. Yet, for many black males, this may never happen.

There are some African-American male graduates of Chicago’s public schools who are able to make it through school relatively unscathed.  Some move on to prominent positions in society and prove to be a success. Yet those achievements are individual. Those victories are reached in spite of the resources provided by Chicago Public Schools. 

My concern is for the young African-American men who are never given a chance. These are the young people who are asked to learn under severely adverse conditions. In 2009, some schools still are without books in their libraries. Students are not allowed to take books home because educators fear loss or theft. Mobility is an issue for students whose homes or schools were demolished to make way for high-priced housing that their families cannot afford. 

Statistics comparing the number of African-American males in schools to those in prison are harrowing.  Almost 75 percent of African-American males in state, local or federal prison systems are illiterate.  Eighty percent have not graduated high school. To effect lasting change for the benefit of black male students, we need to ask these questions:

  • Who is going to address the issues and concerns of African-American males on a systemic and personal level? 
  • More importantly, what are we doing to support their efforts?

We cannot make the mistake of treating African-American males as problems. Instead, we must be thoughtful in listening to their individual concerns and working with their families to address their specific situations. It is a lot of work, but our black male students are worth it.

 

Today, every time I see a young black male in the principal’s office, I reach out through eye contact and often say, “I know what you’re going through. Be strong.”  To this day, we still don’t recognize their strengths.

 


David Stovall is an  associate professor of Educational Policy Studies/College of Education and African-American Studies/College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, at the University of Illinois at Chicago.