Recently, my son, a second grade gifted student at a Chicago Public School, was called a “slave” by his teacher when he hit another boy in the arm because a girl told him to.
“That makes you a slave. You did what somebody else told you to do so you’re a slave” were her exact words to my seven-year old. In a situation where a child behaved in a way that made him “a follower,” he somehow became a “slave.”
When he got home, my son passionately recounted the story to me, saying:
“I’m not a slave, I’m a human being and I deserve to be respected like one. She might as well have just called me a nigger. It’s like back in the day during segregation when the white people would say whatever they wanted to black people and call them names and hurt their feelings. That’s what she did to me, she hurt my feelings.”
And I was enraged. How dare she? My son’s teacher is also African American, but that brings no comfort. It does nothing to negate the fact that she demeaned my son in front of his peers, degraded him or made him question, even if only for a moment, if the fact that he is black is a horrible thing. In an instant, much of the hard work that has been put into making sure he remained positive about who he is was diminished.
My child is a brilliant young man who doesn’t take many things at face value. He challenges popular opinions and theories, and thinks outside of the box. He is also very much aware of what being a young black boy means, and what people of color have overcome in this country. He acknowledges the fact that, because of this, he may face some challenges in life. Therefore, it is my constant struggle to keep that knowledge, those ideals, our history, and his sense of self away from negatively affecting his development and growth.
When I spoke to the offending teacher about her words to my son or the impact it had on hm, she felt no regret. She actually told me, “Someone has to instill some fear in these children and keep them out of jail,” as if she was doing him a favor. I was flabbergasted! For an educator to think that the only way our children will be productive members of society is by scaring them in this way is ridiculous.
I send my son to school to be educated so he can be successful. I do not send him to school to be harmed or degraded in a public forum, or for him to be hurt by a poorly-chosen words that cut him down. We have a responsibility as parents and educators to build children up, keep them informed, cultivate conscious and responsible individuals, empower and arm them with knowledge. We should never say things to break them down, dampen their spirits, or be offensive to them, even in the spirit of saving them from themselves.
What I learned from this experience is that the system does not necessarily work for children and their parents. It’s not truly set up for our children to be supported and encouraged while they are away from us. I’m disheartened, but not discouraged, and as long as there is breath in my body I will fight for my child and be his biggest advocate.
We are to be reminded though, that every child doesn’t have an advocate, or a voice as loud as my own, but they deserve the exact same respect. It is when we take that into account that we realize this system is flawed, needs to be reviewed, and change needs to come quickly. Indeed, “It takes a village to raise a child” but when the village chief breaks them down, we’re left to build them back up.
My son is not a “slave” for making a mistake in hitting another child. He recognizes his wrongdoing and apologized to both the other boy and his teacher. But this experience left a bigger scar on him than he deserved.