Letters from John, Part 3: The School-to-Prison Pipeline: “I Saw Nothing and No One in School That Resembled Me”

[This is Part 3 of my series of “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. ]

Dear Reader,

First of all, John asked me to say “thank you” to all of you who take the time to hear his voice. I don’t know if you know what it means to a man who’s incarcerated to truly be heard about things that, though weigh heavily on his heart, are almost never discussed. Regaining his voice is akin to regaining his breath.

I received a letter from John yesterday where he focused on three elements of his schooling that he feels directly and/or indirectly contributed to his incarceration: status, race, and a disinterest on his part in academics. There is so much there — nine pages to be exact! The excepts from that letter contained in today’s blog focus on race relations – specifically the lack of Black role models in both teachers and pedagogy/curriculum.

Within this letter, he makes a compelling argument for the need for more Black male teachers on all levels of the K-12 model of education in this country. Furthermore, the lack of diverse representations of the numerous contributions that Black Americans have made in the curriculum taught to America’s school-aged children is deplorable. The meaningful implementation of culturally- relevant pedagogy has never been more relevant.


Dear Vivett,

Just thinking about seventh-grade, and the surge of experiences that flooded my life is unbelievable. Vivett, there’s so [many] memories from seventh-grade: I dealt with status, race, and disinterest in education.
There were no Black teachers around me. In fact, I only met two actual classroom teachers who were Black. The other two I met were gym teachers and that was years later. We did have a security guard who was black, but I disliked authority back then.
The text books given in school had few Black role models. Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was mentioned occasionally. I can’t forget the most mentioned topic concerning Black history – good old slavery.
I was still young and the non-violence movement went over my head. I was already fighting by then so I wasn’t into Dr. MLK, Jr. at that age. I just assumed that teaching that to Black children simply led to us being a punching bag for White kids. I definitely wasn’t trying to hear about no slavery, at least not the way they were teaching it. Just hearing about slavery in a predominantly White class with a White teacher was degrading to me. Why weren’t books including Black history used to teach us? History was separate for us and we had to search and take extra steps to find Black history. As a Black child, how do you find your worth or place in this type of institution? Frankly speaking, I saw nothing in school that resembled me. That’s sad.
In my opinion at that time, school was for White people and soft Black people. None of those type of people got respect in my neighborhood. Still, I made friends with certain White kids. I just never hung out with them, especially off school grounds. Unfortunately, there are certain stereotypes that young Black boys buy into and I bought into certain street values.

Vivett, I was deeply troubled.
For me, school was almost like punishment at times. I had no desire to learn what teachers taught in class. We had trades you could learn in my school. I took carpentry, agriculture, computers, and auto-mechanics. I never found one I could see myself enjoy doing in life. Basically, I settled for the easiest classes to receive a credit.
I got left back and placed in special-ed classes. Now I had to prove that I didn’t belong there. I couldn’t really cut class anymore. Special-ed kept you in one class all day. I was in a new school now.  I’m not shy so I met people quickly. Special-Ed classes were more intimate and I liked having more than one teacher in the room.
I was telling you about that one teacher who really paid attention to me. Thank God for teachers like him. I mean, this teacher really inspired me that year. He honestly woke me up. I remember him saying, “You don’t belong in this class…why do you act like getting left back is nothing? Don’t you want to be in your regular grade and to graduate on time?
Belle*, these words may sound basic but they hit home with me. This teacher made me think about my situation. I started to see what he saw somehow and I agreed with him. I didn’t belong in special-ed for learning, but the system had to place me somewhere. I couldn’t believe what I had done to myself, but I was determined to get out of the situation.
Belle, teaching children is an important job because some children like myself don’t realize how serious life can be. I don’t think some kids ever have a teacher like my special-ed teacher to encourage them and make them think. Vivett, I don’t think some children really know the importance of school. When school feels like punishment or a place to hang out, there’s something missing in that child’s understanding. I mean, I didn’t even want to take school pictures.


P.S. – I’ll get to ninth-grade next time, God-willing….Sorry so sloppy, I’m trying to write as fast as I think.

[*John refers to me as “Belle,” which is his endearment for me and is a reference to the modernized mini-series “Roots” about one family’s experience with chattel slavery in America. Toby (formerly known as Kunta Kinte), once in America and after experiencing a treacherous ordeal of attempting to run away, being caught, and having his toes cut off as a punishment,  fell in love with Belle, the woman who nursed him back to health, physically and emotionally. According to John, I am his Belle.]

What do you think?

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