The Trayvons of East High
They weren’t walking too fast or too slow. They may have been wearing a hoodie or carrying candy. They were put on administrative watch rather than by a neighbor. It was “they” who were just talking too loud. On my second day at Duluth East as an Americorps volunteer in charge of the tutor room, I was told without mincing or dicing, “The tutor room was a Black hangout last year. It won’t happen this year.” Cxxxx Lxxxx, a first year vice principal, spoke the language that was not racially elusive, it was a racial directive. Coming from Los Angeles where an average of six different languages could be spoken at one coffee shop, I took offense. After all, was it only the Black kids who were loud and only in that room? Were there designated areas in the school where white people were loud but it went unchecked?
I thought I would take mental progress notes of the tone of the school and the penal code for loud kids and note their race on my tick sheet. During lunch, certain hallways were barricaded and students needed a pass to get to the tutor room. One particular history teacher who liked to raise his voice had special Gestapo tactics that made it difficult with students who had legitimate notes to pass. One of my Native American students who came in for Algebra every day had a note, and he didn’t always let her through. At mid-semester, we were given slips of paper and told to chase down any child who was late to class. However, there was no detention at East so what would be the consequence? As time went on, I noticed many of the students were loud in the tutor room, even the honor students who came there to tutor freshman and sophomores. They would talk and text and one honor student even played me the video of her singing the national anthem at a singing contest. The question was, if a quiet, Black student came into the tutor room, was that considered an anomaly? There was Samantha who liked to sneak onto the SmartBoard after figuring out how it worked, Destiny who likes to steal Scott’s books, a foster kid who came and told me pieces of her life story and Zane who would zone out in the blue papasan. Yet all these kids were white and it made little difference. No one formed groups loud enough to disrupt the real tutoring. In other words, there was no social trafficking to confirm Ms. Lxxx’s theory that the tutor room was a hangout for Black students that took advantage of the room’s purpose.
After time, I developed my own theory of social conditioning. Mainly white teachers were subconsciously weeding out Black students because their cultural interaction may have differed from white student communication. My son, a half Liberian, who rarely spoke was recognized by teachers and faculty . I heard over and over “He is such a nice boy.” My interpretation was he wasn’t loud, rarely spoke so that made him an exception. On the first day of orientation with his Special Ed advisor he was told “Don’t hang out with certain Black kids, they will bring you down.” I was sitting right there when it happened. At a staff meeting in mid-September, a teacher raised her hand and said “How come Black kids hang out in the office and don’t get in trouble like other kids?” Ms. Lxxx said “Because most of their life they had little power, and letting them stay in the office once in a while gives them power.” Over time, I realized not everyone has the advantage of a multi-cultural perspective or has lived in a big city. My mother, who grew up in Chisholm thought all Blacks could tap dance in the 1930s. She passed that cultural misconception on to me although I did not believe her.
Eventually, I told one of the district leaders Black students were being singled out in the very base sense. All students have an inclination to slack off in the right circumstances and the phrasing of such speech was ludicrous to me. At least it was by an administrator whom I am sure had racial sensitivity training. A few weeks before I left my Americorps job, the Vice Principal made another statement: “Its too bad the Black kids have nowhere to go.” The whole semester, my co-worker and I had been hosting, tutoring and issuing tests to Black kids. They blended in just fine. My prediction is, it would take a tsunami to change certain people’s way of thinking but we are not in a tropical area. The wave will come on its own.