Beyond FEBRUARY: Black History Month and a Bit of Wishful Thinking
The boy’s name is Xavier, and he’s an eighth-grader. He’s the same age as my son, but looks nothing like him. Xavier is black, and the photo in the local paper of him and his mom show his big dark eyes under a furrowed brow. He’s frowning as he stands outside his school, questioning the camera aimed at him, apparently irritated by the reason for the photograph.
Xavier was reprimanded in mid-January for talking in class. After class, his teacher pulled him aside and said, “I don’t need any African Americans messing around in my class.” You can almost hear the hiss of that statement and all the years of painful American history and hostility behind it. It truly is amazing what lies so near the surface sometimes.
Other students overheard this comment, adding to Xavier’s embarrassment. When Xavier was moved to another class, how was that supposed to make him feel less ostracized? And when the school district awarded him funds to attend a “surrogacy training program designed to help him deal with cultural adversity,” how exactly was that supposed to console him? I can’t imagine such a program would be viewed by my son…or any eighth-grader…as anything but a punishment, though I hope it helps Xavier understand the special challenges that lie ahead because of where he lives and what color skin he happens to inhabit. I wish his former teacher had been enrolled in a surrogacy training program designed to help her teach tolerance to everyone she knows (starting with the woman she faces each day in the mirror) but apparently that truly is wishful thinking.
The teacher was simply placed on administrative leave and reinstated after the incident was investigated and the boy’s family’s story deemed accurate—and she’s yet to apologize to Xavier for her damaging remark. Such a remark made by a teacher truly is damaging. If Xavier had been raised to believe in himself and his ability to achieve whatever he wants regardless of his skin color, that belief has now been damaged.
So my wish for Black History Month is this: that more people in this country consider the special challenges faced by those who differ from them, and that people who work with children stop to think before making any remarks about race or nationality that might be misconstrued—or are simply mean and meant to intimidate. I guess that’s two wishes, so let’s go for the magic third: I hope students like Xavier understand they have the right to voice concerns over any form of mistreatment, to go to their families for support, and to question the motives of anyone who makes derogatory remarks regarding their heritage. Black History Month is a good time to consider how to treat each other with utmost respect, but that kind of learning really ought to continue throughout the year and ought not be limited to school children. I think Xavier and his mom would agree with me on both counts.
Photo credit © The Philadelphia Education Fund