Yesterday, I was substituting in an 8th grade math class. As we all know, middle school students are noisy so I had to keep reminding students to stay focused on their work. I walked around the classroom, offering help to students who needed it. I walked over to the loudest student in the class, Tatum, and softly reminded him to get on task. How he responded was really sad. He looked me in my eyes and said, “Miss B, if you haven’t noticed, I’m stupid.” I was floored. Did this 13-year-old boy really think that? Or was he just looking for an excuse not to do his work?
I looked him in his eyes and said, “Tatum, you’re not stupid. Look, you did questions number one through six perfectly and…” Before I could finish, he said, “No, I know that I’m dumb. It’s okay, Miss B.” I responded, “Tatum, you’re not dumb. You’re talkative. If you just cut back on talking, you could get more work done.” He sighed loudly as if I were not convincing enough, and just said okay. I stood next to him as he completed a few more problems without a hitch and gave him positive reinforcement before helping another student.
This is the reason why I want to be a teacher. I don’t know who put the idea in Tatum’s head that he was dumb, but it was clear that no one was reassuring him that that idea was false.
A few months ago, Feminista Jones asked her Twitter followers, “Honestly, how many of u were raised being told that you're destined for greatness & were given immense support towards achieving greatness?” While I was raised in a pretty supportive family, I noticed that not everyone shares the same upbringing. Many Black people, men especially, were told that they were not shit, were not ever going to be shit, and probably that their fathers were not shit to begin with. Sadly, they believed it. I have seen so many Black men who lack a support system and who search for role models outside of their families. They were never told that they are brilliant. Their parents did not support their goals. Their creativity wasn’t nurtured. They were taught that men did not cry, men did not love, men did not get an education, etc. They were taught that you were only as strong if you did not show emotion. They played sports, did not do homework, got into fights (and won), and were celebrated for how much money they made.
If you turn on the television, you will see how many Black people have been killed/wrongly convicted by people who do not value them. Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Oscar Grant, Emmitt Till, Marissa Alexander are proof that a Black life has always been undervalued in society. When Black people are killed or done wrong, no one jumps to their rescue. The media always finds a way to justify the murder, or not shine light on the severity of the injustice, or shift the blame to us. I dare you to read a CNN comment section where the victim is Black, or even worst if the suspect is Black. It is up to us to fight and educate others so we can have even a semblance of fairness thrown our way.
If all of these factors are already against us from out of the womb, who is there to tell us that we are valued? Who is going to inform us that we are brilliant? What evidence do we have that we are capable of greatness? How will we know that we can change the world if we put our minds to it?
Tatum’s words really hurt me, as an educator and as a future parent. As a teacher, I can only do so much an hour per day, nine months out of the year, to combat these beliefs at an early age. As a parent, I will have to do everything in my power to make sure that my children are not exposed to people who teach them this, including family.
For those of you who are already parents, please make sure that you are not directly (or indirectly) letting your children believe that they are inadequate and incapable of brilliance. I can show and tell your children that they are great, but it’s nothing like a parent’s words and actions to truly exemplify this belief.