A few evenings ago I was riding the train home from work with two of my coworkers, S and B, and our student, J. J is our only student who takes the train after extended day; 99 percent of the student body lives no more than a few blocks away from the middle school, but J lives in Flatbush, a few trains away. Since S, B and I also live either in or near Flatbush, we wait for J after school so that so he doesn’t have to take the train alone.
J’s school situation is unique for a few reasons, including the fact that his commute is far longer than most kids’. He is also one of the only African American students at school. The sixth-grade class is probably eighty percent Arabic, ten percent Asian, five percent Hispanic and four percent white. J also tragically lost his father recently, and some of those elements led him to act out a lot at the beginning of the year. He got detention for getting in a fight. He threw tantrums and hid under desks. And yet, as the year has progressed, his behavior has gotten better and better. He’s super popular thanks to his undeniable charm, sharp mind and great moves on the basketball court. Despite some huge challenges, he has excelled at school.
Cut to the recent train ride. “Ms. V [one of our coworkers] is racist,” J nonchalantly shared. S, B and I glanced at one another apprehensively. On the one hand, J is prone to hyperbole. At the same time, Ms. V is infamous for saying borderline inappropriate things to her students, so J’s comment wasn’t entirely unbelievable.
“Why do you say that?” B asked.
“In homework, we were talking about lice,” J explained. “And she leaned over to me and said, ‘Black people don’t wash their hair.'”
My mouth dropped open as myriad questions came to mind: Why would anyone say that? Why would anyone say that to their student? Why would anyone say that to their black student?
“How did that make you feel?” B asked.
“She likes me,” J replied. “I didn’t say anything because I need her to keep signing my reading log.”
There was a long pause as S, B and I contemplated what to say. “You’re probably going to meet some racist people in your life,” I began, but trailed off as J looked up at us, his wide brown eyes filled not with hurt or anger, but something like curiosity.
“Yeah,” S added. “But not in school!”
She was right. School needs to be a safe space. What did it say about J’s conception of society that he felt comfortable staying quiet in that moment so that he could get a signature and not cause problems? But clearly he was looking for allies, for someone to be on his side, or else he wouldn’t have confided in us.
“Someone else can sign your reading log,” I said. “You need to tell Ms. R [our boss]. Ms. V has no right to say something like that to you.”
B and S agreed and offered J their support as well. He pushed his glasses off the temple of his nose and looked downward, silently weighing our suggestions. Then he changed the subject. A few stops later, the four of us parted ways at Atlantic Avenue. S headed to her second job as a waitress in Park Slope. B took the Q train to church. J and I settled into two seats across from each other on a crowded 2 train toward Flatbush. I was scanning the New York Times when J said, “You’ll have to remind me tomorrow.”
“What?” I looked up at him. “Remind you about what?”
“To talk to Ms. R,” J said succinctly. “I’ll forget.”
I nodded, but I wanted to hug him. I was so proud that he had decided to take that step, that he understood his self-worth and wouldn’t let Ms. V take advantage of her position of power. It gave me hope that as J gets older and continues to deal with racists, with people who underestimate him or assume that his silence is a foregone conclusion because he is not privileged, he’ll challenge the status quo.