Letters from John: Hiding in Plain Sight

This is Part 4 of my series “Letters from John.” In Part I, 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. Part 2 is here and Part 3 is here.

Despite the difficulties of being married to a man who is physically incarcerated, I love the marriage that my husband John and I have together. Through his love and honesty he subtly teaches me so much about myself that I become better in all facets of my life—particularly in my role as an educator.

A couple of weeks ago, after speaking with him and reading his letter where he talked about his challenges as a student in middle school, I asked myself aloud in my blog post if I had any “Johns” in my class—young men of color who stood before me everyday, yet were trying so hard to have their academic vulnerabilities go undetected by me. My radar for this type of passive detachment from learning is acutely sensitive now.

It’s so easy to just label a student as bad or troubled or a problem. This type of labeling is happening too much and too often to young male students of color without taking into consideration WHY they are acting out in such a way if they are even acting out at all.

As you read this latest excerpt from a letter from John, I implore you in whatever role you play in the education system to think candidly about those children who cross our paths who may be using defiant behavior to cover up deeper academic issues — those children who are hiding in plain sight.

Oct. 11, 2016
Time: 8:25 A.M. Temp: 48

Dear Belle,

Ninth grade was decent. I went to class a lot more. However, I can’t say what I learned because I only went to school due to my environment. This school had children that actually went to class the majority of the time.

I went to class but my concentration wasn’t there. I sat every day or mostly every day hearing the teacher making noise with his mouth. The other students seemed to understand the teacher’s language; I had difficulty understanding his methods.

Sadly enough, my pride prevented me from reaching out. I couldn’t read well so I pretended to either be tired in class or annoyed. This tactic worked with most teachers. I usually got left alone. Well – there’s always an exception to the rule and I met the exception. He (the teacher) insisted that I read aloud. I told him, “I ain’t reading nothing…you can’t make me read aloud if I don’t want to!” The teacher looked at me and said, “Get out of here and go to the Principal’s office!”

Needless to say, I didn’t go to the Principal’s office and that made things worse. A disciplinary action followed and my mom was informed of the situation.

I really didn’t know the work in school. I got by [undetected] for too long. The level I should have been on, I was behind and I really noticed how far behind I was when I started going to class. My reading level was extremely low. Eventually I developed a method in school: In certain classes that I knew required reading out loud, I would find a part of the reading and practice going over it. Then I would raise my hand to volunteer before getting called on and read that part.

One thing you learn in life is that tricks don’t last. Although I started noticing my attitude pertaining to my education, I didn’t know how to ask for help. Sometimes when you come from humble beginnings, it’s hard to ask for help. Poor people can be very proud at times, especially ignorant poor people. I knew about money and I knew as long as I had money and dressed well, I wasn’t worried about school.


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