“He’s a white man trapped in a black man’s body.”
Those words were spoken about me by a substitute teacher who worked in my building. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case and President Obama’s personal comments on what it means to be a black man in the United States, I can’t help but think about the black boys in my school. Like the president, I have my stories and my boys are collecting their own stories every day. In fact, we all have our stories.
Collectively, these stories frame who we are, how we react, and how we perceive the world. The experiences I have had growing up, working as a teacher in a Chicago public school, leading a K-12 school with two sites, and walking each day as a black man, frame who I am as a leader. They help me navigate through all that I see, hear, feel, and teach.
We, as educators, play a major role in the development of a youth’s identity. The curriculum we use connects and develops students, and the relationships we form at school are critical. We must provide opportunities for students to show who they are. We have to listen to what they have to say, and then validate, guide, and encourage their true selves.
One way I do this is by sharing my own story, through the eyes of an educated and experienced black man, who once was a black boy. I am not a white man trapped in a black man’s body. I am me… a constant advocate for children.
Students in our classrooms may not lose their life, but they can still lose things of value. Do they lose out on honor roll classes, roles in plays, access to opportunities, or even time in classrooms? Do our words build up our students or do they chip away at their confidence and limit them? Do the spaces we create include or exclude?
How many youth – black, white, brown, native, Asian, African – are seen, or not seen, as who they really are? Are our perceptions becoming less and less formed by our interactions, but instead by the messages we consume or the assumptions we make?
As educators, mentors, and parents, we must provide opportunities for students to show who they are, listen to what they have to say, and validate, guide, and encourage their authentic selves.
We each have our own way to reach and guide students, but here are a few things I’ve figured out along the way:
1. We must expose students to things beyond what they know – beyond the sights of their neighborhoods. We need to create transformative experiences that take students from where they are to where they want to be.
2. The arts are a powerful way for students to discover who they are and realize their dreams. Spoken word and media arts are two areas where youth culture easily connects, and students can use these avenues to master their message and articulate their voice. Teach them the skills to activate their creativity and give them a chance to tell you their story.
3. We must continually stretch and engage with people that are different from ourselves, whether the differences are cultural, racial, economic, or philosophical. We do this not only for the students we serve, but for ourselves. Our students are growing, and so must we.