Skip to main content

One Thing Right

I was watching some more of Tavis Smiley's Too Important to Fail series and the current 90-second clip that is up shows the same panel of young black male offenders that led me to find my student from first grade.  He is in this clip also although he doesn't say anything.  The young man next to him, however, talks about how he didn't pay attention because he was traumatized (the interviewer's word, not his) by his sister being killed in front of him.  He goes on to say that he thinks most black boys in his neighborhood had similar experiences (I agree). Then one of the other kids said that when he was in fourth grade, his teacher told him he wouldn't amount to anything and he gave up.

I am pretty positive that I've made a huge number of mistakes and bad judgment calls in my years of teaching but I am confident that I did this one thing right: I never said that to a child.  I never called a kid bad.  I never told a child I hated him or her, and I never said that they wouldn't amount to anything.  Never.

Most years, I'd ask the class, during the first week of school, to close their eyes and put their heads down.  then I would ask them to raise their hands if they had ever been called bad.  Usually over half the class raised their hands, and it was a rare year when every African American boy didn't.  I would repeat the same thing for "worthless" and "a problem."  Then I would tell the kids some version of this:

"I will get mad at you.  I may yell at you even though I don't think that's a good idea, and I will get frustrated.  But I want you to know right now that I love you even when I'm mad.  It's my job to take care of you while you're here and I will never ever call you bad.  If any grown-up has called you that before, they were wrong.  You might have made a bad decision.  You might have done something (or a lot of things) that hurt people.  But you are not bad."

Apparently it worked, because there was more than one occasion when I was really, really angry at a kid and they said, right to my face, "I know you yelling at me because you care about me, not because you think I'm bad."  (I'd like to think that if I went back to the classroom today I wouldn't yell at all, but I'm not positive."

So, at least my student who ended up on this documentary had that.  And, fortunately for him, as difficult as he was, I wasn't the only teacher in his life - at least in elementary school - to go out of my way to show him that, even though he was driving us crazy, he wasn't bad and there was hope.  I hope it helped, just a little. 


Popular posts from this blog

Why Teachers are Afraid to Go Back

  Opening schools to in-person learning is an extremely emotionally charged topic right now for parents and teachers both, and for good reason. With almost half a million Americans dead of COVID and worries about mental health crises from isolation very serious, there seem to be no good answers. In fact, one of my students recently told me that “there are no good options. There are only less worse options.” If the science says it’s safe and the district has a plan, which where I live has been approved by our very conservative Alameda County Public Health Department, then why aren’t all teachers excited about going back?  As a former classroom teacher, I want to explain this. Hint: It’s not about the science. The first thing you learn as a teacher is that you won’t make enough money. We joke about needing a rich spouse or family money but it’s not actually funny, because it’s so often true, especially for beginning teachers. The reason I am no longer in the classroom is becaus

COVID in prison

 I have been a bit MIA because I broke my ankle on Thanksgiving (hiked back out two miles on a broken ankle!) and had surgery. So I forgot to worry that I hadn't heard from Jorge, my former student and co-author in prison, in a while. Turns out that I was right to worry, as he contracted COVID although seems to have made a full recovery. I got a letter from him today that he said I could share parts of. I'd like to highlight the very last paragraph. This young man was suffering from COVID, totally cut off from all his loved ones, scared and in prison, and he remembered to ask after my family and worry if we are feeling lonely. He is a remarkable person. ------------- Sorry for the late reply, there's been so much that's been going on since I got to this prison.... As you know, before quarantining when I got to this place for two weeks, I did it at SATF for two weeks also. So in total I quarantined for a month and my tests came back negative. After the two weeks here I g