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Black Boys and Academic Excellence: An Unlikely Match In The Minds of Too Many Teachers

He didn’t want to participate in the spelling bee to begin with. The shock everyone blatantly displayed about the fact that he was a runner-up in his class spelling bee had rubbed him the wrong way and added to an already unfortunate situation. He wasn’t accustomed to the academic spotlight. He’d never been acknowledged for anything positive, academically speaking. Now here he was about to walk into the auditorium stage in front of his friends and classmates to, of all things, spell.

They laughed as he stepped up on the stage — students and teachers alike. I saw the trepidation in his gait. The staff member running the spelling bee, upon seeing his reluctant stroll to the stage, didn’t hesitate to tell me that “he didn’t have to participate if he didn’t want to.” “When did we start giving students outs for not completing challenging tasks?” I retorted. She quickly changed the topic.

The word was “Hispaniola.” They laughed as he hung his head after hearing the word — students and teachers alike. What kind of word was that? I felt like my student was being set up to fail. Of the 100 words from which to choose, why select that one? The student before got the word “tonic”. From tonic to Hispaniola? Really? I was seething inside and I didn’t even try to hide it. I couldn’t prove it but my double-conscious gut feeling knew that this spelling experience of this student carried more to it than what met the eye.

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There’s this prevailing unspoken thought that Black boys don’t belong in the world of academia. They only belong on the football field or the basketball court ,and are nowhere near adequately prepared for college and career-readiness. That’s exactly what was going on in this situation. This young Black teenager felt awkward being considered smart. He was only used to getting accolades for his athletic prowess. For no other demographic of student would this be acceptable, yet it is widely accepted as the status quo for young Black male students.

Isiah Thomas and Na’ilah Suad Nasir  wrote in 2013,

[M]any black student athletes come to campus with poor academic preparation. This is often due to the poor quality of urban public schooling in our nation, and reflects recruiting practices and priorities that privilege athletics and not academics, thus putting young people in situations where it is extremely challenging for them to excel academically. Many (though not all) of these black male student athletes come from high-poverty neighborhoods, and thus face additional challenges in their transition to college. These include needing to support family members at home, struggling to meet their own expenses, and not having the same level of support as other students.

The more I teach, the more I believe that our young Black male students are an endangered species whose main purpose in the educational system has little to do with attaining academic achievements and status. It’s quite the contrary. They are being groomed to be “dumb jocks” who are more profitable filling a prison cell instead of a college classroom.

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He stepped up to the podium with obvious reservation. He heard the word “Hispaniola,” he heard the laughter, and he just hung his head. He refused to spell the word for fear, I imagine, of spelling it incorrectly or being laughed at further.

When a child has the potential to academically thrive, not just survive, and chooses not to take that necessary first step, the educational system and the extended village of which he is a part have failed him.

What do you think?

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