John S. Blake examines his path through America’s educational system, and why compassion, not prejudice, could have changed his direction sooner.
If you’ve ever had a cracked screen on your cell phone, you know phones don’t fall. You drop them. Someone knocks them over. They get banged around in a backpack, pocket, or pocketbook. It’s an accident by way of neglect. When the screen splits into ugliness, there’s frustration. We feel a hint of failure. Dramatic? Not for some.
It must’ve been so difficult for Ms. Brennan. She was white, well-educated, and a highly respected sixth-grade teacher in an affluent region of New Jersey. What could she possibly know about how to guide a black boy from the projects as he navigated white wealthy spaces? The first day in class, she looked me up and down and asked, “So you were in Englewood before this?” I nodded. Englewood was predominantly black and, to so many, a rough area. It wasn’t rough. It was just black. When I told her I was recently in advanced English and math, she smiled with a condescension I wouldn’t comprehend for decades to come. “Well, why don’t we just start you off easy and see how you work your way up.” It wasn’t a question. She wasn’t interested in my opinion. She was the teacher. And there it was—the pushback—just for exceeding her expectations. She was a victim too of a provincial perspective of black students. She couldn’t fathom it; black and intelligent, and achieving.
Mom worked—lifting bodies of the elderly; out of wheelchairs and into baths, out of tubs and into beds, out of beds and into wheelchairs. She was in her mid-forties and compromised both her back and her dreams just so I could attend a school that didn’t know what to do with me. My father was gone. This angered me. The self-pity painted me into a thick corner I couldn’t get out of without weed and drinking in the park. On Mom’s days off, I could hear her grunt out of bed, moan as she limped around the house on her bad knee, make coffee, light a cigarette, then plop down in a kitchen chair with a low groan. She was in pain. She held her back more than her cigarette. When she was home, she drank. After some alcohol, she could talk. She would constantly speak about how important it was to do well in “these damn schools I’m bustin’ my ass to keep you in. If it were jus’ me, I’d still be in the projects.” I didn’t know what pressure was. I just knew my entire life was darkening at the thought of tolerating Ms. Brennan’s pity.
All of my black classmates were in the slowest reading course. All of Ms. Brennan’s black students were required to stay after school for “extra help” in algebra. Whenever one of us asserted that we neither needed additional assistance, nor did we belong in the slow reading group, we were labeled “disrespectful,” yelled at, and sent to the principal, which simply meant detention. During detention, we sat in Ms. Brennan’s class, after school, taking extra help in algebra. This, the academic merry-go-round—a cyclical ride on a chipped porcelain horse with eerie music and our parents utterly annoyed—was ten months of futility. I knew early on; there was no impressing Ms. Brennan as long as I had more melanin than surrender.
I stopped doing class work. I stared out of windows and imagined being anywhere else. I didn’t turn in homework. I began writing my name on tests and quizzes, seeking out the hardest questions and equations on the pages, answering them correctly, and turning them in with blanks everywhere else. I’d toss papers on her organized desk, quietly return to my perfect chair, stiffly fold my arms and brace myself for the tongue lashings. “You think you’re funny, huh? I can’t wait to tell your mother how funny you truly are.” I was set outside the class or in the very back of the room. Sometimes, my desk was pushed next to hers, and that is where I was forced to sit. I didn’t understand her anger then, but I get it now; I was ruining her perfect record of student compliance and astounding academic results. Ms. Brennan would sometimes gaze around the class, still her look and zero in on my face, pause and glare. I smiled, even though, inside, I was dying.
For the first time in my life, I was failing. I was failing everything. My mother would be ready when I got home, “I just spoke to Ms. Brennan.” And that’s all I heard before the belt, the wooden spoon, her purse strap, or her bare hands—hands attached to arms that lifted bodies for a living. Nevertheless, I survived Ms. Brennan, but not without consequences. Mom had to attend a meeting with the Child-Study Team, and that meant my life would change. After the meeting, my mother cried. I would be labeled “Emotionally Disturbed” and be placed in “resource rooms.” We kids knew it as “the dumb classes”—approximately five kids to a class with two teachers, beginning school an hour later than everyone else and leaving an hour earlier to prevent socializing with other students. We didn’t get homework, and if we did, we weren’t forced to do it. Nor were we punished for a lack of class work. It seemed the job requirement for our teachers was containment. We didn’t eat lunch in the cafeteria like everyone else. Our food was brought to our class. We didn’t switch classes like everyone else. We were locked, literally, in one room. Caged. Tolerated. If outbursts were avoided, we were congratulated on a successful day. It was like this for two years, until my mother lost her job and we had to move to a poorer area again. I was glad to leave.
However, my file followed. At my new school, I was in resource rooms. Classified. If I was a car, my label was the disclaimer: Bad transmission. Good for parts. And the school focused on the more drivable student body. Resource rooms were junkyards. System dumps. We were wrecked metal impatiently waiting for our turns in the crusher. After sitting in classes with teachers who sometimes reeked of liquor, or threw chalk, erasers, and cursed threats our way, I was again congratulated and herded to high school where the label was waiting for me when I got there. It didn’t matter that I was sixteen, four years older than my days of warring with Ms. Brennan. I was always going to be “Emotionally Disturbed” for life. And why wouldn’t I be? What changed? Never, from the moment I was categorized, did anyone attempt to adjust my emotional state. Instead, a tray of slop was slid to me in the form of justifications and rationalizations. I was told, “John, you’ve had it rough,” or “You’ve never been given the tools to be where other students are.” All of it—excuses—more for faculty who saw only an uphill battle with little reward at the end, than the student in need of courageous love. The diagnosis was correct. I was absolutely emotionally disturbed. The treatment, however, was found wanting.
Not long after, Mom was arrested and convicted of a violent crime. She was sentenced to over a decade. No one came for me. My school wrote me two half-day permission slips per week to visit her. No one asked me if I had another guardian at home. There was no therapy, no invitation to an office to talk, not a single hug. One night, the police took my mother from our home. The next day, I went to school. Not until my mother’s conviction (nearly two years later) made the paper, was I called into the school psychologist’s office. We didn’t have guidance counselors. What was there to guide? My very small alternative school had a psychologist for about sixty students. I was addicted to heroin and crack by then. With my mother’s frame decked out in orange—facing up from his paper—he asked me “How are things at home right now?” I was dealing drugs and writing checks with my mother’s name to pay the rent. No one knew. I simply attended school, hustled what I could at night, smoked some coke to stay awake for school, and repeated. Unable to respond, my face got hot. I began to tear up. Something in my chest hurt. No one had ever asked me how I was. I rose from the seat like a defendant and walked out of the school. After walking long enough to feel a need to sit, I dropped in a nearby parking lot to sob and smoke cigarettes.
Soon after, a teacher’s aide ran up to me. She sat on the ground next to me. We pulled grass from cracks in asphalt and giggled about how upset the psychologist got when I ignored him and split. I began pulling grass in larger clumps with more and more anger. I began to pull like it was hair from heads of police who snatched my mother, from the heads of teachers who tossed me a once-over and gaveled me unworthy in their skulls, from heads of the Child-Study Team who shuffled students and dealt labels from the bottom of the system’s deck. I fell into the aide’s arms and she rocked me. She squeezed my body tighter than I’d ever been embraced. Soon after, the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) got involved, and I was placed in foster care. Once I graduated high school, clean a couple of years and off the streets, my DYFS worker congratulated me and called me a success story. She told me she was closing my file. I was excited. This meant I was no longer a disturbance of the emotional kind. But it also meant the funding stopped. It also meant my foster mother would ask me to move out.
I was still emotionally disturbed. Because, after all, no one offered to help me with my emotions. That is to say, no one considered getting their hands dirty enough to dig out my weeds. To every social worker and teacher, I was simply dirt to sweep under a rug. I was something to endure. I was “lost.” I was “broken.” I was “from a missing father and a mother in prison.” I was a piece of luggage, labeled with the places my potential ran away to, abandoning a deflated heart. Lost cause. Small sliver of hope. Somebody else’s problem. Emotionally disturbed.
After, by default, enlisting in the military, after learning to kill people and promising to do so overseas—all for a place to sleep and a job, after coming home to a missing family—lost in the woods of addiction, after falling so far into a depression that I eventually returned to addiction, after bouncing back once I found poetry—or, rather, poetry found me, after losing enough respect and friends in the poetry scene, after youth poets dared me to sober up and be their mentor, after finding a wife who suggested I go back to school, after persuading conversations with Claudia Emerson (may she rest in peace) and Laura Steadwell, after making an oath to a mirror—that I would not let the rattling chains of Ms. Brennan’s ghost shake my abilities, after I spit in my palm to shake on a promise—no label would define me, I’m happy to say that I’m a VCU sophomore with a 3.22 GPA. I am a double major—English and African American Studies—with minors in Gender/Sexuality/Women’s Studies and Creative Writing. For the first time in my entire life, I have all As. I understand now what I could never have understood many years ago; our educational system is sociologically, racially, ethnically, spiritually, and, yes, emotionally disturbed.
Ms. Brennan, if only you asked me, in 1981, “John, is everything okay? Is there something wrong at home?”
I would have told you
Maybe, if my mother was still alive, I could tell her that no school is a good school, even the suburban utopia she believed she sent me to. I could tell her that kids don’t “fall through the cracks.” They are shoved into a void for the slightest hint of “requiring added attention.” Students are punished for an inability to tow the line. They are dropped into an abysmal existence for needing more than a chair and some instruction. I needed a teacher that was personally invested when no one else was. I needed teachers that saw a student before seeing a black boy, that saw a young man instead of a hood rat. I needed counseling. I needed nurturing. I needed assurances that whatever I was going through would bend to my willingness to see a future. And what teacher can do all of this, for such little pay, all of the time, for myriad students, hundreds of days each year?
Maybe, if the schools knew what was wrong, they’d fix it. Then again, maybe the schools have always known. Maybe the system believes the problems aren’t actual problems at all. Maybe this is the thinning of the herd, where the lame are let go. Maybe this is exactly how it’s supposed to function. Maybe the wealthy need less thinkers and more laborers. Perhaps states truly do understand what happens to children who experience ethnic studies. Was it ever the intention to teach an honest historical account of how we got to this point? Were we ever supposed to get to college? Maybe conservatives know precisely what happens to students who are told the truth about white supremacy, Colonialism, Imperialism, and hetero-normative oppression. Maybe no controlling power is inspired by the idea of citizens understanding exactly what’s happening on Capitol Hill. What if I wasn’t a prized child—viewed as the purpose for all involved—that somehow slipped and fell into a crack, but instead I was deemed the dirt necessary to fill an expecting hole?