In memory of Trayvon Martin
Today, as I think about Trayvon Martin, and young Black men all over this country like him who have been “counted out,” I realize I am fortunate. I am one of a few Black professors at a predominantly white university and over the last two semesters, I have had close to ten Black male students (all athletes) in my Freshman English classes, and thankfully, I see a future for them. I can close my eyes, and literally, I can imagine them in board rooms, clinics, hospitals, classrooms, and yes, football and basketball courts. Oh, I know what I’ve been told. Other teachers have warned me that these young men are not going to succeed. They’re dumb. They don’t try. They want something for nothing. They are intimidating and rude towards teachers, and all they want to do is play ball. Well, let me tell you this. ALL of my Black, male students these last two semesters passed my classes with Bs and better and not one (No not one) ever “sassed” me or acted in any way other than gentlemanly. How, might you ask, did these young “statistics” do so well in your class? Not because I didn’t grade them hard. Trust me on that. In fact, if you ask them, they would probably tell you I pushed them harder than any other student in the class. Maybe I did. Maybe I did because I was told by my daddy many, many years ago that black folks have to work harder than any other race of people just to receive half of the success. Is that argument still valid today? Depends on who you ask. But let’s just say, I teach my Black students (particularly my male students) to be prepared for anything—in the classroom or in “real life.” I try to impart to them my daddy’s wisdom that he shared with me and his grandsons. “Respect yourself.” “Respect your elders.” “Whatever you do, do it with a willing heart and a cheerful face.” And, of course, “go into a situation assuming you will have to PROVE you are worthy to be there (no matter where there is).”
So, yes, I demand excellence from them, just like I do any other student in my class, but with them, I know it is my duty to let them know things are going to be difficult – extremely difficult, in most cases. Therefore, I do not accept excuses. Period. I don’t care if they come from the Hood or Park Avenue. One semester, one of my Black male students emailed me his little girl didn’t have a babysitter so he couldn’t come to class. I emailed him back and told him to pack up all of her things: diapers, bottles, toys, etc. and get his butt to class on time. I also told him he better take good notes during class AND he better keep her quiet so she doesn’t disturb me or the other class members. I am proud to say, he accomplished all three things. Was I too tough on him? Should I have just been happy he was a young Black male trying to be a good dad? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I wanted this young man to know that yes, I was proud of him for taking care of his fatherly duties, but school was a duty as well, and it was up to him to make it work. I am proud to say this young man not only “made it work,” he will be graduating soon, and I am sure, there will be a smiling little girl in the audience clapping her hands for her daddy as he walks across the stage – the first in his family.
I try to Conference with all of my students in all of my classes near the beginning of the semester. I want to get to know them on a personal level, if possible. I always tell my Black male students I expect better than their best because they have a generation on their heels that will need their leadership and their counsel. But, don’t get me wrong. I also offer them my Mommy ears. Many of them are away from their Moms for the first time, so I often get treated like the surrogate mom. I don’t mind it. My prayer, always is, if I can’t be there for my sons, please allow there to be some other mama who can step up and offer them some motherly words of wisdom. So when these young men come to me, I listen to their fears, their concerns and their worries, because I know what it is like to be “one of the only Black students” at a predominantly White school. I know what it feels like to wonder, “Am I good enough?” or “Should I really be here?”
To my fellow teachers (regardless of your ethnicity, social and economic level, gender, sexual orientation, etc.): These young men might enter your classroom looking angry, bored, hostile, etc. Don’t buy it. They are only wearing that mask in order to protect themselves. They are afraid you are going to “punk them,” “make fun of them,” and/or “shame them.” So, before you can GET them, they try to GET you. Therefore, I challenge you – reach out to these young men and let them know they can remove their masks in your classroom, because in your classroom, masks are not required.