“There is something different about this place where we live now. All people are free to go where they want and do what they can. Book learning swims freely around in my head and I hold it long as I want. I see a man reading a newspaper aloud and all doubt falls away. I have found hope, and it is as brown as me.” – Excerpt from More Than Anything Else: A Story of Booker T. Washington by Marie Bradby
When my children started elementary school, I took advantage of the privilege granted to me as a mother who made a choice to suspend working outside of the home for a number of years. I was able to volunteer at the school to support my children academically in the classroom and continue with story time, learning activities, and art projects at home. But it didn’t take long for me to understand that my presence at their school extended farther than the academic support of my own children. This understanding became the foundation for why I chose teaching as a career.
According to the 2015-16 data from the Education Department, of the 3.8 million public school teachers in the U.S., 80% are White, 9% are Hispanic, 7% are Black, and 2% are Asian. Unfortunately, these findings fall short of reflecting the demographic make-up of the students they teach. This means that the student of color today will experience teachers who are white more often than they will non-white teachers. This aligns with my own K-12 school experiences from decades ago. Couple this with academic content that rarely exhibit social and cultural context for non-white students and you begin to comprehend the struggle for belonging, relevance, and worth for too many of our children of color. There still remains an undertone, sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle, of racial and cultural bias rooted in a system that made it illegal for a group of people to even learn to read. Though there has been progress, it’s happening at a snail’s pace in a world that functions at speeds once unimaginable.
It is precisely this realization that prompted me to become an educator to teach children, like my sons and like me, concepts bigger than reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Children of color should have equal opportunities to have a teacher who looks like them and understands how the world perceives and receives them. These students deserve to bring into the classroom all of the rich culture and tradition they learn from their families, neighborhoods, and communities without fear of judgement or correction. This is important not for the sake of diversity but rather for humanity. I became an elementary teacher with a commitment to be that brown face of hope for children of color; to help them embrace their rightful place in the world that awaits them.
However, my students were not just children of color. My commitment to children and education guided me toward a broader understanding of what my presence really represents in the classroom. I witnessed within myself the evolution of my own capacity to see beyond racial and cultural identity. As a classroom teacher, I had to be able to see the unseeable in every student. I had to see through to their heart and know that each one of them carries a flicker of the same flame that shines in all of us. Every student deserves to have their full Being and potential to be seen and honored. More importantly, I felt the responsibility to teach my students to see that in each other.
I always knew what my presence in public schools represented for non-white children. And I grew to know what my presence represented for white children. For some of my White students, I was the first and perhaps the only Black person that they interacted with closely on an almost daily basis. I even had one 3rd grader innocently and inadvertently share how his parents wanted him to stay away from the bad influence of Black people and that I, his teacher, was an exception. According to his parents I was different from “other Black people.” I cannot allow myself to be seen as the exception to nor the representation of all Black people. Be that as it may, I can immerse myself into being an educator that serves the development of all students to become respectful, responsible, and dynamic citizens. The key was to cultivate a sense of community and family in my classroom in order to help them apply those lessons once they left Mrs. Starks. Another intention each school day was to empower my students to take academic risks and express their new ideas based on what they’ve learned.
I received validation of my efforts in this simple but profound exchange between me and M.L. (initials of 3rd grade student) after learning about Lyndon B. Johnson and Jim Crow laws:
Me: How would you describe Lyndon B. Johnson during his presidency?
M.L.: I think he was brave.
Me: Tell us a little bit more. Why do you think he was brave?
M.L.: (spoken very matter of factly) Because he didn’t have to change the Jim Crow laws. He could sit anywhere in the movie theater. Only the Black people had to sit in the hot balcony. He changed the laws to help them not himself.
I allowed her answer to linger a moment. I wanted the class to take her response in. And I wanted time to take in her response and breathe what just happened. My students were accustomed to me becoming tearful when I’m proud of them or excited for them. But we all felt this moment was different. I smiled through my tears as I stared at M.L.’s young face framed by long, straight, blonde hair.
M.L.: Why are you crying, Mrs. Starks?
Me: M.L., you have learned something that many grown-ups still need to learn. If you have the power to make a positive difference for others, it’s important that you do it. You might think you’re only 8 yrs. old, but age does not matter. The ideas you just shared with us can change the world if you keep sharing it.
M.L. recognized compassion. Her response was the 8 yr. old version of “speak up for the voiceless.” This idea is vital for people of power, authority, or privilege to internalize if change is to occur. Whether you are a teacher, a coach, a counselor, or fill any other role that calls you to guide and influence children, regardless of race, let’s consider the communities and systems in which we operate to examine how we can shift the Eurocentric paradigm to one that is globally humanitarian. Certainly this shift includes racial and cultural awareness but absolutely does not stop there. Let’s build connections through not only embracing differences but highlighting commonalities. When I find myself losing site of why I am an educator, I often think of little M.L.’s insight.
I may still be a brown face of hope for some students and hopefully, I am also a compassionate heart of connection for all.