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How Does This Harlem Teacher Help His Black and Brown Students Navigate Life “Outside the Bubble?”

One of the most difficult challenges we face as educators is preparing our students for life after they leave “the bubble”. What I mean by “the bubble” is the exclusive Black and Brown world my students currently inhabit and navigate. They are almost exclusively Black, Latino, or Muslim. In school, most, but not all, of their teachers and school staff mirror their race and ethnicity. When our students leave school each day they return to African-American, Latino, and Islamic communities. Even their part-time jobs are within the neighborhoods where they live. This only adds to their isolation. Yet, when they graduate from high school – whether it’s to college or into the workforce – they will enter a white majority world.

How do we prepare them for this?

For myself, the first fallback is the tried and true rule that has been passed down from generation to generation – I tell them that you have to be twice as good just to stay even. This axiom is relevant even today. Our students must have an awareness that uneven standards for different people exist. Far too many of our young brothers and sisters are unaware of this dynamic and refuse to be “woke.” For example, a few years ago in one of my African-American Studies classes I remarked about the inequities in sentencing for Black and white males convicted of similar crimes. I stated that typically the Black man is given a more severe punishment than his white counterpart. I had a young African-American student in this class who disputed this contention. She disagreed rather passionately, I might add. The next day I brought into class titles of a few studies that supported my assertion. I invited her to look into them. She did not believe the research any more than she believed me.

Then the Trayvon Martin shooting took place. Although not directly connected to the topic at hand, this student couldn’t fathom how someone could be shot while simply walking to buy some skittles. She became “woke”. The racial disparity of the confrontation was too stark. While I can’t exactly say with assurance that when she leaves “the bubble” she will be prepared for life, I can say that she will at least be better prepared than she once was.

Another time I had a brilliant young student who was moving on the next year to a private boarding school because she earned a scholarship. Before she left I sat her down to have a frank conversation. I told her two things. First, I told her that there will be those – some of her classmates, some of their parents, and possibly a teacher or two – who will believe that she does not belong. I said to her with as much seriousness of mind as I could muster,

“You belong and don’t you ever, ever forget that!”

I continued on,

“Just because their parents have money and you might not does not mean that they are better than you. I can also assure you that few of them will be smarter than you.”

Her academic scholarship should attest to that fact.

The second thing I told her was that while you belong, there will still be two different sets of rules in place. I said to always remember that if you commit an infraction your punishment will be greater than the one your white classmates receive. Unfair as this may be, it is an unpleasant fact that she must learn to successfully navigate.

The following year on one of her breaks she came back to our school for a visit. She told me that all that I’d warned her about was true. She specifically spoke about three students who were caught smoking marijuana on campus. The two tuition-paying white kids were placed on academic probation of some sort, while the Black kid on scholarship was expelled. It was the only infraction ever committed by the Black student.

More recently, I had a senior speak with me about her concern of attending a predominately white college in the fall. My response was first to applaud her for recognizing the challenge of this upcoming dynamic. Then I told her with this awareness to simply be herself, that she didn’t need to change anything about who she is in order to suit others. I followed up by telling her to also be proud, patient, and tolerant: Proud of who she is and of all that she has and will one day accomplish, and to be patient and tolerant of those unlike her who may still have much to learn.

Yet I also let the kids know that the playing field is much more level than it was when the dinosaurs roamed and I was their age. The election of Barack Obama is testament to this. In more tangible terms, when they leave “the bubble” and seek a job, opportunities that were unavailable to me will be more available to them. I remember when I was a kid and the local McDonalds opened near Amityville on Long Island, thirty or more teenagers were hired. The only person of color hired was a lone Black girl. Over my high school years at the local Sunrise Mall, hundreds of part-time jobs were available. Countless numbers of my white friends had jobs there. As for Black boys and girls hired at these establishments? I could count them all on my two hands. This isn’t the case today. Character and ability more often override race and ethnicity.

Indeed, in the corporate world today you see more people of color in vital roles that simply did not exist in large numbers back in my day. From department heads, to division leaders, to CEO’s, people of color are more visible (as are more women). There is still much room for improvement, but let us acknowledge that things have improved.

Life outside “the bubble” also has a secondary meaning. It means for our students adapting to a world outside the protective environment that our school provides for them. We won’t always be there to protect them and to help fix their mistakes. A case in point connects to the young student above who went on to private boarding school. At our school her closest friend was a young lady who, shall we say, did not have her best interests at heart. She was a potentially negative influence who alarmed not only her teachers but her peers as well.

In my conversation about moving on to boarding school I brought this up with her. I pretty much demanded that she choose her friends more wisely going forward — no matter who they are on the racial, ethnic, or economic spectrum. Thankfully she listened to this. When she was telling me about the student who was expelled she remarked that if the student who was kicked out had chosen his friends more wisely he likely would have avoided the episode that got him expelled.

I haven’t heard from that young lady since then, but if she continues on her path in life in the same manner she has thus far she’ll be successful outside “the bubble”.


What do you think?

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