[In Part I of this weekly series, “Letters from John,” I wrote, “I’m in a beautifully loving marriage to John Dukes, a man who is truly one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. My husband is also incarcerated. During our friendship, courtship, and marriage, John and I have spent a lot of time tracing his trajectory from the various schools he attended as a boy in NYC and on Long Island to his current status as an inmate in a New York State correctional facility.]
Letters from John, Part 2
In this letter from my husband John that I am sharing with you today, John thoughtfully reflects upon his seventh-grade year in school — a year that, by his own admission, was a life-changing one.
It’s funny because I just so happen to teach seventh-grade English Language Arts this year and am able to draw so many parallels between not only how John describes himself at that age and my students now, but also between the teacher he mentions who “noticed” him and my own “noticings” of my students. I wonder if I have any “John”s in my classroom? Students who look the part socially but are existing under the radar academically? Am I connecting with my students beyond just imagery and text-evidence? Do my students feel as if they belong in Mrs. Dukes’ classroom and, if they didn’t, would they be comfortable enough to tell me?
The more John shares with me about his reflections on his journey from school to prison, the more sensitive and aware I become in my own teaching practice. I see a direct correlation between the peer and teacher experiences of students, particularly Black male students and and the way they are disproportionately represented in the school to prison pipeline. They need so much love. They are so misunderstood. Their high creative energy is often misconstrued as insubordination and this leads to extremely high rates of disciplinary actions like suspensions which….well you know the rest. As I willingly take this hindsight excursion with my husband, I can’t help but ask if one piece of his academic puzzle had been different in this critical seventh-grade year, would he be writing me from prison today?
“The year 1986 was a major one for me. I was in seventh-grade and I was the cool kid. Older children knew my name. I dressed like them, spoke like them, and hung out with them. My appearance dictated my life and while the older kids provided a plethora of haphazard information, they were just as clueless as I was about life.
However, my popularity started to stagnate my academic growth. I protected my status by staying in “familiar waters” e.g. fashion, slang, parties, dancing, drinking, and popular company. I felt like a king amongst men.
Nevertheless, that seventh-grade blur caught up with me. In fact, seventh-grade prepared me for other difficult moments that I would cause myself in life later on. Somehow, oddly enough, my teachers never bothered to address my negative behavior. I was really under the radar.
Finally, my mother was called by the school. The caller said these words while I sought sympathy for being in the predicament I was in: “Mrs. Dukes, there’s no need to allow John to come back this year. He’s going to repeat seventh-grade due to his disciplinary record.”
My surprises were only beginning after that school phone call. The school decided to place me in Special Ed classes. They kicked me out and sent me another school in the district.
In Special Ed, the teachers were more engaging and I admit, I enjoyed the attention that they gave me. One teacher took notice of my capability. He started taking an interest in me and encouraged me to get back in my right grade.
I was in a new school, meeting new people, but was still indulging in the same behaviors. I kept asking myself, “What’s wrong with me?” I needed help and fast.