For months you’ve read about my husband John’s former experiences with the public school systems in New York City and on Long Island during elementary, junior, and high school, as well as his current experiences being educated in a maximum security prison in New York State. Quite the dichotomy, some might say. Others, like myself, see more similarities than differences between those two realm of education. Equally as profound is the fact that John’s educational journey is that of many little Black and Brown boys turned men in the school-to-prison pipeline. The more we talk about school — then and now — the more I can’t help but ask myself, “How many John’s have passed through my classroom? How many, like him, will end up in prison one day?” “How do we stop this deadly trend?”
These are questions that are painfully asked, and even more painfully answered. The following is a letter from Mr. Markey Coleman, a man with whom my husband is incarcerated. Mr. Coleman candidly walks us through the trials and triumphs of his educational path along the ever-expanding school to prison pipeline.
Third grade changed my life and it has taken me years to understand why, and to gain control. I believe I am a victim of social promotion made possible by the shared custody of my parents. My parents were separated and lived in different states, my mother in New York and my father in Georgia. Each state had its own educational policy, which created a loophole for a child like me living between two states. Before I had ever gone to Georgia, I was held back in the third grade, which crushed my self-esteem. The following school year my friends now in fourth-grade would ask, “Why are you in that class? Did you get left back?” Embarrassed, I would lie to mask my humiliation, leave school through a different exit, and change friends.
Everyone in my class had been held back and no one wanted to be there, so my new friends and I roamed the halls. This behavior increased throughout my schooling from roaming the halls in elementary school, to leaving after third period attendance in high school, to no longer attending school at all.
Let’s not forget about the loophole transferring schools between the Big Apple and the Peach state. It really paid off because somehow I made it to the ninth-grade. At least in Georgia I did not have to worry about the shame of being left back. Nevertheless, no matter how many times I transferred schools or relocated, my warped experiences and perceptions of education accompanied me.
As I transitioned from one grade to another, I developed methods to shield my low self-esteem. I sat in the back of the class so the teacher would not call on me. By this time, I had etched into my mind that I did not know the answer, so why try? My heart would pound in fear of the teacher calling on me and when that dreadful moment arrived and I performed horribly (as I’d told myself I would), I sank deeper.
I had no favorite subjects and my low self-esteem made it easy to walk away without trying. By the time I reached the ninth-grade, I was reading on a third or fourth-grade level, stammering over words that I should have known, and reading at a snail’s pace. My classmates would snicker and make comments behind my back. To save myself from drowning in shame and to thwart unwelcome ridicule, I became the “class clown”. My antics disturbed the class, entertained my classmates, infuriated my teachers, and earned me repeated trips to the principal’s office.
There were people in my life who should have noticed my lack of motivation or desire to learn and intervened. Although there were moments when extra-help was available, it was too late. Tutoring me without first becoming acquainted with me and addressing my self-esteem was a waste of time. I needed to know that failing a test did not mean that I was stupid or could not learn.
Today, despite my incarceration, I have accomplished things that I once thought were impossible. Not only have I acquired my GES, but a Bachelor’s degree, as well. Upon my release from prison, I plan to earn an MBA. No longer do I sit in the back of the class in fear. Instead, I am in the front row, attentive, and unafraid to ask and be asked questions. Some subjects are harder for me to grasp than others i.e. math, but I recognize that there are gaps in my learning and it does not mean I can not learn. Although the third grade changed my life, education has allowed me to gain control, lift my self-esteem, and accomplish many of my goals.
Like my dear husband John, Markey Coleman is another data point on the school-to-prison pipeline. He didn’t fail. Circumstances and school systems failed him. He has redeemed the failure of others but far more Black men are not so lucky. Without knowing it, Mr. Coleman’s recollections confirm much of the data about the importance of students being held to the same standards, regardless of the state in which they are educated; about the correlation between young Black and Brown males’ below-grade level reading scores by third grade and the likelihood of them winding up in prison; about the need for those involved in the lives of children to build meaningful relationships with them and to speak up and speak out when they see them veering off-track. Had these interventions taken place, I believe strongly that Markey Coleman would have been spared a lot of pain and lived a very different life — one devoid of the harsh realities of life in prison.