I donated some books to my local public library yesterday. One of the bags that I used to transport the books was from Howard University. I got that bag at a parent orientation for incoming freshman students. On the front of the bag it proudly showcases the date that this historically Black university was established — 1867. I immediately stopped what I was doing and paused to really be in the magnitude of that moment. Just two years after the end of the American Civil War and those formerly enslaved had already erected a fine institute of higher learning? That’s amazing to me. What a demonstration of resilience and fortitude. What an outward showing of my people’s commitment to excellence! To think that a people who were once slain for daring to be literate had now opened one of the finest educational institutions for us, by us, that still stands today is beyond inspiring.
This truth made me realize that a huge part of what sets Black teachers a part from the rest — our je ne sais quoi, if you will — is our knowledge of our shared history of oppression, struggle, and overcoming in every possible area of existence in this country. We use this knowledge to push our students with more fervor than anyone else ever could. Who other than a Black teacher can tell another Black student what the world has in store for them as a Black person? Who else but a Black teacher can use that knowledge to motivate students to be not just good, but great?
I posed my thoughts to my son, now 20 years old. He knew about my previous post about him (I had to get his permission to use his photo) and he had some very strong ideas about the matter, ideas that differ from mine, yet hold their own weight in and of themselves.
How important it is for Black students to have a Black teacher early in their elementary education….hmmm….
How about you look into focusing on the importance and impact of teachers recognizing their students’ worth early in a students career? To me, Ms. Molenar being black was a tertiary thing that I never thought about. By the time I was the only black kid in all my honor classes I was already confident in my abilities because I was reassured of my worth since my earliest stages of learning, both in the classroom and at home.
Like, Mrs. Smith was a white teacher that pushed me in 7th grade. Mr Reid a Black male in 8th. Mr. Sutton a Black male in 9th who wanted me to conform. Mrs. (I can’t remember her name) was a young white woman who in 12th grade told me I can be the president.
My premise is that Black teachers hold Black students to a higher standard of excellence than White teachers do. Several studies have been done that conclude that having a Black teacher increases Black students chances of being recognized for TAG, Honors classes, etc., early on. They help build confidence in students of color.
Okay, well, Mrs. Molenar works. Just remember, every other teacher who recommended me for something was white after that. Mrs. Chertoff, Mrs. Sherwood. My 5th grade teacher Mrs. Bergeron. But Mrs. Molenar did set the foundation.
These teachers that my son mentioned had cultural competence and an acute awareness that, as smart as Christian was and is, he, as a young Black male, would need specific opportunities to help him advance in a society that is put off by young Black children, a society that is better prepared to have them go to prison than go to college.
As Christian and I spoke further, we went through what each of his teachers whom he accredits a portion of his success did to propel him. As we went down the list, what they all had in common in their determination to fortify Christian was twofold:
- They recognized his academic aptitude and recommend him for enhancement programs.
- They authentically involved themselves in his home life and community. They knew that he was the product of a single-parent home, with a young mom who was herself pursuing higher education.
As my beloved son and I continued our conversation, we came to the mutual conclusion that what he was taught at home set the foundation for what his teachers at school did. That, more than anything, set the stage for his academic greatness.
From in the womb, I told my baby that he was a king and a descendant of kings. I read to him. I sang to him. I prayed over his precious life. When he was born and throughout his life, his family — nuclear and extended — gave him the tools he needed to see his success as the only option for not only him, but for those whom God places throughout his life in his sphere of influence.
Those intentional opportunities and words of affirmation, according to Christian, prepared him to advocate for himself and hold his own when, at times, he was the only Black student in the room. By the time he got to school, he was already quite confident in his abilities.
I think there’s a lesson there for all parents, particularly parents of Black children. It’s a lesson that’s not new to our people or to me but that took on a new meaning coming from one of two human beings to whom I’ve done it – my two children. It starts at home. What we teach our children about who they are, whose they are, and the endless possibilities that are available to them, these lessons equip them with the confidence they need to persevere in an educational system and world that is decidedly set as the antithesis to their advancement. That’s what my ancestors who founded Howard University did in 1867. That’s what is still required of us today in 2018.