Winter in America:
a journey in education
by: Christopher James
A journey in education is a look at the path that is all too common to the everyday walk of young black males. Through various interactions and experiences, the feelings of inadequacy and the lack of confidence are easier to embrace than the motivation to try. For any growing child the embrace of love is what’s wanted, but often youth do not know how to seek that love. The love that an educator gives can inspire a student or shield a student from challenges that can instigate self-assurance.
All throughout my educational experience, I was told that I could be anything I put my mind to. If I just get good grades the rest will work out, I will get a good job, good money, and be able to buy the car of my dreams. This all sounded good but even in the fourth grade, I knew that this was not all that I needed. Every day I saw my parents working hard, father preaching to the masses, and my mother teaching youth my own age at the time.
In the early 90’s when Starter jackets were the greatest symbol for being fresh, my brother headed off to walk to his middle school with his friends as he did every day. He was excited because he had on one of the most sought-after Starter jackets, the infamous Georgetown Hoyas with an embroidered bulldog logo on the front and back. As he turned off of his home street, he heard a car come to a screeching stop beside him. My brother stopped with a friend who were both curious to the abrupt stop when a guy in a black hoodie jumped out wielding a Smith and Wesson. I remember the explanation of the gun because that was the first time I heard of Smith and Wesson as a gun manufacturer, I only heard the name in reference to rap duo Smif – N- Wessun, now known as Cocoa Brovas.
Thankfully, my brother survived the incident without physical harm, but the toll was greater on my mother and father who felt helpless. Here they are working to provide the best for their children for an incident to occur down the street from where we laid our heads.
That incident sparked my parents to sacrifice more and send my brother and I to prestigious private schools. My brother went to a private high school while I was sent to a Christian elementary school to start fourth grade. My experience was anything but Christian. I was forced to repeatedly apologize in the front of the class for proclaiming my innocence and not taking accountability, which in the fourth grade I didn’t know what it meant. I was threatened with suspension because of a design in my haircut due to the school being against gang activity. An experience that my parents reminded me of that I must have purposefully forgotten was when my class went on a school field trip and one of the school workers who was tasked to take me, and three other minority students back to school decided to drop us off at a near gas station because she didn’t want us in her car.
After all of these incidents, my parents called a meeting that they insisted I be a part of with school administration. Here I am, a child whose chest was barely at table level while sitting. I remember vividly the discussion at the meeting. I never saw my father mad aside from when I would break something, but today he carried a wave of calculated anger that appeared calm but deliberate.
My father asked the teacher and the acting principal, “You asked my son to apologize for incidents he was not a part of? You’ve held him back from activities, and tried to suspend him for a squiggly-line in his hair? Will you apologize to us and him for our inconvenience?” The principal jumped in “That’s a reasonable request and on behalf of the school I do apologize”, my father stopped the principal. “Thank you, but I am asking the teacher.” The teacher played with her keys and without making eye contact said, “You know, I do not have the courage to apologize right now.”
As a child sitting at the table, I was hoping that the teacher would stop playing with the keys, I knew what my mother would do to me had I been playing like that. I also immediately thought about that word “accountability”. I had been hounded to write that word and what it meant for pages and pages and my teacher could not put that word into action.
Needless to say, that summer we moved from the urban-city environment to the suburbs. In retrospect, these years planted a question in my mind as to why my environment was so different from this new community. This new community was building new stores, homes, and in the process of building a new high school. Years later, the urban neighborhood I grew up in looked the same as it did the morning my brother was robbed.
This new community was great because I didn’t grow up worrying if I too would be robbed for my Air Force 1's, or my Sean John jacket. This was a new frontier and a different type of challenge to conquer. As a black student I was accepted, I was told that I served a purpose and that purpose was sports. Sports was often said to be my only access to college. The biggest thing with this experience for myself and other black youth, I received love due to my physical abilities and was not taken seriously in any other facets of the school.
Prior to the beginning of my senior year as a family, we moved out of state so my father could take advantage of a new position/promotion within the church. This was a complete culture shock for me. I had been in class with white students before, had white teachers, black women teachers, but never a black male teacher. This standard did not change as I entered this new school for my senior year. Instead, I was faced with the reality that I would be a member of a group that represented only 5% of the students in the entire school. This new normal meant that I would be the only black student in the class, and when questions of race, slavery, or affirmative action came up, teachers would use me to confirm that the country was in a good place, even to my objections.
The experiences in grade school prepared me for the perceived utopian society that college is and the real world stipulations involved. In an environment where students are eagerly finding themselves and searching for representations of who they wish to become it was especially difficult to find myself in this space. As an American male who is black, I did not have a black male teacher or professor until my final year in college.
The effects of limited representation continued into college as I dealt with finding myself in an environment that was not conducive to young black men. The college experience is tough as it is, being away from home, student responsibility, and the yearning to make a difference in a world unknown. I was taught many lessons in college while trying to find myself in all of these mentioned roles. I was faced with professors who allowed their implicit bias to calculate my grades, a professor kicked me out of class because she thought I wasn’t human. I like to refer to her as Mrs. Turnpin, a fictional character from a book we read in that course of a lady who thought she was righteous by upholding standards even though those standards were rooted in racism and bigotry. Lastly, the staple in a black youth’s life, the rite of passage of being harassed, mocked, arrested, and falsely charged by the finest in blue. This was a journey of discovery to move from a black youth to a black man fighting for distinction.
To bring this full circle, I have always wanted to be a representation for my community but mostly for youth that are searching for an authentic person that can represent and support them. With this motivation driving my passion I jumped to the opportunity to be an administrator in a K-8 elementary school in Cleveland, Ohio. In this role, I was the quasi-assistant principal tasked with ensuring school engagement in the community and finding ways to support students and staff needs. As I began to find my way in this new role I was rocked with a tragedy that would gain national attention. A student that took a liking to me and began a relationship with was gunned down in a “good shoot” police encounter. The school student body looked to me to help navigate them through this traumatic experience with the killing of their classmate, Tamir Rice. As Dean of this school, I attempted to seek out any and all organizations and supports to help students with trauma until my efforts were hindered by leadership that wanted to operate this traumatic event as a normal occurrence. Missing the point that this decision would reinforce the stigma that urban youth do not matter.
This brief scope into my educational experience is not out of the norm for students who share my skin tone. The importance of representation goes beyond just seeing someone who looks like you in a position of success or power. Representation is about having individuals of different experiences and insights that will have a say and seat at the table where the variety of experiences, cultures, and philosophies will add value and sensitivity to decision making. My inspiration for helping youth in education, community, and life is driven from a motto I learned when I decided to enter the teaching field, “your job is to get at least one student to listen.”
At the time, I thought this idea was right. I no longer feel that way because I found out early that the students who listened to me were often the cast-offs or troublemakers. This revealed to me that all students can be great if they’re taken seriously, given unbiased time and attention, and know that someone cares. Instead, we choose to forget them. Just like the forest beneath the highway never given a chance to grow, and now it’s Winter in America (Gil Scott Heron).