Questions For My Son: Is it Hard Being the Only Black Boy in Your Grade?

My seventh grade son has always excelled in English class. He loves reading and writing and, even though I tend to roll my eyes a bit at the importance placed on scores, he's never not scored "advanced" in English Language Arts on the state standardized tests. That said, he's not perfect. He can be more interested in reading a novel or playing video games than in doing a set of math problems. Beyond that, he's bright and capable, and he's probably the politest child you'll ever meet. The comment I hear from many adults is that they've never heard a child say thank you so much before. So it's been incredible to see him receiving extremely low grades in English so far this year.

A few weeks into the school year when I first reached out to his English teacher in the gifted program he's in to request a meeting so that we could get on the same page and figure out what was going on, I was told that there was nothing she could tell me that wouldn't be shared at back to school night.

Then there was the drama of having to demand that she stop seating students according to grades--you only got to sit in the front of the class if you were getting good grades--and she actually told the students that this was her policy. I was happy to point out that this was a FERPA violation, but what was incredibly dismaying was that when I asked why she was choosing to seat kids in this way, she said this was an "experiment." Doing this would develop "grit" in the students and they would compete to sit in front—Psst, Dear Paul Tough, I think we need an intervention.

My son had been seated in a back corner of the classroom at the start of the school year. He is the only black student in his class. I'm also very aware that LAUSD graduates less than 50 percent of black males.

Because of my experience as a teacher, teacher coach, and education writer, I know when a teacher isn't doing her job. We've not had one single proactive contact from this particular teacher all school year. If I don't reach out and say, hey, I think there's a problem we need to get on top of, I hear nothing. You always hear about teachers who have a hard time dealing with students whose parents just aren't involved at all, but we aren't those parents. Since I know how much stress teachers are under, I've always been of the mindset that whatever is going on, just let me know so I can handle it at home. But, I'm not the teacher collecting a salary from LAUSD, and so lately I've asked some version of "My question for you is what interventions, differentiated strategies or approaches are you taking in the classroom? What have you seen work to date and what do you intend to try to do help ___ in these last few weeks of the semester?"

And that question has been cc'd to the counselor, the magnet coordinator, and the principal. I'm still waiting for a reply.

It's frustrating to constantly be the one driving the student achievement conversation. It's frustrating to have to ask a teacher how they are influencing and motivating a student who happens to be my son, only to get no response.
Student-led Conferences AT HOME!
It's disappointing to be greeted with anger when I've asked if she's taken the time to build a relationship with my son and talk with him about what motivates him and what he needs to be more successful. And then there was conference time.

Yes, I got to talk to my son at home! Again. Yay!

My husband keeps asking why I keep pushing the teacher and the school. "You heard how many times she brought up her contract when we met with her," he'll say. "She doesn't care. Getting her to care for our son is harder than proving you're not a witch at the Salem Witch Trials," he told me. And then there's the fact that, "Let's face it, most teachers don't care about black kids. They're just waiting for them to fail."

I know too many other excellent teachers to be completely jaded, or to believe that a contract in any way sanctions what's going on. I still have hope.

After school on Wednesday my son called me and he was extremely upset. I asked him what was wrong and my he told me that in sixth period the school counselor decided to pull him out of an assembly on bullying (oh, the irony!) and have a conversation with him where the counselor
1. Accused my son of having a grudge against the English teacher.
2. Told my son he needs to "get off your ass and work harder."

My son was hurt and confused. I hadn't told my son that I'd been emailing his teacher or anyone else on the staff. And what really got me was that my son told me that he just kept his cool the entire time the school counselor was talking to him so that the counselor couldn't say he'd done anything wrong. Yep, I've had that conversation with my son beforethe one where you tell him that if an adult at school says something unjust that you disagree with, or tries to intimidate you, you have to just remain calm and neutral. No matter how unfair it seems, you have to just keep your cool.

I know all too well how black students are accused of being disrespectful or rude and then sent to the office, even when the adult in the situation is behaving unprofessionally. And sometimes adults who work in schools will try to intentionally antagonize students because they want to get kids in trouble. (It's the same convo you have to have with your black kid about the policedon't seem aggressive or threatening at all.)

How do I know adults try to intimidate or get kids in trouble? Again, I used to be a teacher. I used to mentor and supervise teachers. I've watched "The Breakfast Club." I know what's up.

So all this was on my mind on Wednesday nightthe responsibilities and role of teachers, black children, and what needs to happen to help my son earn the grades he's obviously capable of earning. I talk to my son every day about school and life, and sometimes I record our conversations. I don't always know what I'm going to ask him, but there's a great deal I feel in my gut, and it's horrifying to see many of the academic nightmares and racial dynamics I've seen play out in schools playing out in my son's life.

Every time I hear someone ask in the most clueless manner possible about how we get more black males to graduate or be science majors or whatever, I think to myself that if they could actually talk to these kids, they'd know. Here was Wednesday night's conversation:

Los Angelista: What do you like about middle school?
Mr. O: You get to interact with a lot more people.

LA: Do you feel challenged academically?
O: Yes.

LA: Do you feel like you're working hard enough?
O: I can always do better. Always. But sometimes it's hard to figure out how to do better.

LA: Do you feel like your teachers care about you?
O: Yes and no. I do think there are certain teachers who care about my well being and how I'm doing and then there are others like Ms. __. I don't know if she really cares all that much about me.

LA: Does it matter to you if a teacher cares about you?
O: Yes. It matters to me because it allows you to establish a bond with the teacher and connect with you more, which can help you academically. It's hard when you get teachers that don't like you and could kinda care less about you.

LA: So you think Ms. ___doesn't care about you?
O: Oh definitely. She'd be happy to have me out of her class. Then she'd be free from black kids.

LA: Are you still the only black boy in your grade in the gifted magnet?
O: I think so. There's ___ but he's in 8th grade.

LA: Is it hard being the only black boy in your grade?
O: You mean is it hard being the only black person in general? In life?

LA: *laughing* Think about school first.
O: Okay. Well, it's being black in general. What's hard about being black in's just that no matter what you do or where you are, you're always going to be viewed a little bit differently.

LA: But in school...
O: Well, in school I guess...people still view you a little bit differently, talk to you a little bit differently, and approach you a little bit differently than they would a white or an Asian student. Whether you're in the classroom or the schoolyard, you're different and you're considered a threat.

LA: How do you they approach you differently?
O: As an example, in the classroom if a white student isn't paying attention or not doing his work, the teacher won't call him out. But if I'm not, the teacher will call me out.

LA: But you should be called out for not paying attention, right?
O: Sure, but the white and Asian kids get away with it.

LA: Someone would say that's evidence that the teacher cares about you more, so they're not going to let you get away with not paying attention.
O: Yeah, you could say that. But I don't believe it. They're always watching you, waiting for you to mess up, so then when they catch you daydreamingand trust me, all kids get a little bored and daydreamit's like they're glad they caught you so then they can shame you and yell at you.

LA: Give me another example of this difference.
O: The teachers talk to you more slowly and more simply, like they don't think you're going to understand what they're talking about--like you're slow, or like you don't have any kind of vocabulary. For example, I notice when Mr. ___ talks to white and Asian kids, he talks to them in a normal way, but when he talks to me, he talks to me in a slang-ish way, throwing in all these other words. And I don't talk like that. I don't talk in slang. But they assume that because I'm black, I talk like I'm a rapper or something. People are also surprised when they find out I'm in the gifted program.

LA: Who is more surprised, other kids or adults?
O: Adults.

LA: Do you ever feel like your teachers think you're smart because you're black?
O: If they do, I haven't noticed.

LA: Do you think teachers think white kids are smart because they're white, or Asian kids are smart because they're Asian?
O: Oh yes.
LA: How?
O: Well, some of it is stereotyping. The teachers call on them and talk to them in this way that let's you know they assume that the white and Asian kids are smart. Like they know they'll know the answer. But some of those kids aren't any smarter than I am.

LA: It always bothers me when the teachers comment on how you're really well spoken and articulate. I mean, on the one hand, it's great that they're noticing that your vocabulary is through the roof, but on the other hand, it's like they're surprised.
O: Yeah, Ms. ___ did that today. It was a little irritating. It's like she's shocked I can speak proper English.
LA: Not slang.
O: Not slang. Not how they think black kids talk.

LA: And then when Ms. ___ accused you of plagiarizing that one paper because the vocabulary was so advanced.
O: Yeah, and you had to tell her that I'd read The Lord of the Rings in the fifth grade, so that really is the vocabulary I use.
LA: She was so shocked.
O: And it's the way they think about the parents, too.
LA: What do you mean?
O: Like they think all the white and Asian parents are rich and have gone to college but if I'm black, I must have hood parents.
LA: Hey now, I used to teach in Compton. I might have an Uzi and I'll pop a cap in somebody!
O: Whatever, mom.

LA: Hmm... So do you think Mr. ____ would have talked to you like that today if you were white or Asian?
O: NO! Oh no. I don't think so. Not at all. He wouldn't think he could get away with that with a white or Asian kid. But black kids, we're just supposed to take it and not say anything.

LA: What about the Latino kids? Where do they fit in?
O: There's not as many of them in the gifted magnet. They're more in the other magnets. But a lot of the ones in my magnet will be almost as brown as me and say that they are white. It's weird.

LA: Do you feel your teachers appreciate black people or the different perspective having your diversity brings?
O: Honestly I can't say, but I'd hope they would. But I can see how some people don't utilize that. When you're the only black kid in a middle school that size...I do hear a lot of stereotypes of black kids. I hear kids saying these things, repeating stereotypes, but they don't even realize that they're stereotypes because they're just so isolated in their own culture. It's just them and their stereotypes and they don't know any real black people.

LA: Do they see you through the lens of those stereotypes?
O: Yes.
LA: Like how.
O: Kool-Aid.
LA: What?
O: Kool-Aid. They assume I drink Kool-Aid. People always associate Kool-Aid with black people.
LA: But you don't drink kool-aid!
O: Nope. Isn't that crazy that they think I do?

LA: What is the most awesome thing about being a black student?
O: No one else has your hair.

Would you trade your middle school experience to go to one with more black students.
O: Yes and no. Yes in the sense that it would be nice to be around a significantly larger African American population and no in the sense that I wouldn't have made all the connections with the students I've met.

In the education community, there's plenty of hand wringing about how we help black males succeed, Folks, it's not rocket science. You have to decide to care about a kid, honor and care about him culturally, and treat him in a respectful and intelligent way. And you have to do your job as a teacher. It's that simple. I can't help but think that if more teachers actually talked to black children like they're human, actually read literature about educating black children, and taught those students with love and humility, as if they'd one day be married to their own kids, we'd be so much better off. In the meantime, this morning I'm going to the school to have a conversation with the school counselor that will start with the question, "Can you please tell me what you said to my son yesterday?"


Anonymous said…
Wow. That teacher has messed with the wrong parent. I feel like I shouldn't be surprised, but seating by grade? Shocking.
Los Angelista said…
I'm STILL shocked that that was happening. I just don't understand how it's possible to think that's a good idea.
Unknown said…
Where and the hell is this school, Alabama? A BIG OMG OMG this is 2013. That teacher is a spirit killer. Teachers like that make kids drop out or have self doubt. Pls send this off to the school district & news media. A spotlight on this teacher needs to happen.
Rachel said…
I feel for your son. I'm glad that he has you as an advocate, but it's tragic that even a gifted kid with involved parents is going through this. I can't imagine how awful it must be for the kids whose parents aren't savvy enough to engage with the teachers and question the system.

I have a kid in an LAUSD elementary school. There are some amazing teachers, and there are some burnouts who don't care about the kids, and are just doing the minimum until they retire. (This is a "good" school, by the way.) There are racial problems at her school too, unfortunately, and a lot of them are never addressed.
Val said…
This is outrageous. You are doing the right thing, keep discussing the situation with your son that there is no harboring of ill feeling. This is very painful , and as a mom I feel deeply for you, and for all the other parents who are suffering right now. I am truly hurt by this, but know that you have an army standing behind you in spirit.
Los Angelista said…
LOL, no, not Alabama. Los Angeles, 2013. There is a part of me that believes that every teacher, even this teacher, becomes a teacher because deep down they have the desire to truly educate kids. That's why I don't want to give up on the situation and I do believe something good can come out of this--not just for my son, but for everyone involved. But is very stressful.
Los Angelista said…
There are SO many amazing teachers out there and I consulted one of them who taught my son in 2nd and 3rd grade--and taught my other son in 1st grade (she taught until she retired). I asked her advice on approaching the situation with the counselor and it was incredibly helpful. Educators like that really do give me hope. One of the things I've thought about considerably is what would happen if I wasn't a fluent English speaker, if I was easily intimidated or didn't know the questions I have a right to ask/if I didn't have the policy-know-how. And the racial problems are so pervasive. I'm now wondering if I might gift her a copy of Beverly Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria. (It's a great book
Los Angelista said…
Thanks for saying that, Val. It's really really appreciated. I had a moment after my son called me where I felt like SUCH a failure that so many of the challenges I saw my mom and dad having to go to my schools about are still playing out for my son. I remember my mom having to roll up and be like, "So let me get this straight, you told my daughter in front of the whole class that she was stupid because she needs to use a calculator?" And let's not even get into the time I made the cheerleading squad and white parents complained that there were too many black cheerleaders so I got kicked OFF the dang squad. It made such a difference knowing that my mom and dad were there as advocates for me. I'm glad to be an advocate for my son (even tho it's stressful!) and it's nice to know that so many others understand and have our backs.
Anonymous said…
Your son sounds amazing. I'm really sorry that he has some teachers who don't seem to think so. I live in the midwest, and I homeschool my kids, so I don't know if things are the same there, or even the same here as when I was in school, but I was always jealous of the friend I had that had an I.E.P. (individual education plan?) for her A.D.D. because she had a counsoler who was familiar with the school district hand pick her teachers based on who gave out the least homework... Not that I'm suggesting your son needs less homework, but if he could switch teachers it might alleviate some stress for him. I realize that wouldn't really solve the problem, and with the gifted magnet, she could be the only teacher, but getting him through and out of there with good grades could be the best solution for him. I was a bratty white teenager, but my gifted English teacher hated me too, but I just dropped to regular English and got easy a's.... Might not be the lesson you want to teach your son, but if you're worried about transcripts....

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