The background of all this is almost as important as the substance of my thinking, so bear with me with all this…
The Origins of Passion
The Seeds of Trouble
My passion for improving the quality of K12 public education starts with my own story. My personal journey in public education started in the 3rd grade. My parents pulled me out of private primary school because I was a behavioral nightmare–or so it was what they believed based on what they were told by school officials. From the onset of preschool, my parents received daily phone calls regarding my behavior–completely out of control: I recall my mother telling me how she would take a deep breath before releasing me to the school every morning, while silently pleading to her higher power, “please just let us have one day with no problems at school”; Unfortunately, there was no peace to be had. At the end of my Kindergarten year, my parents were brought in for a meeting with school officials to discuss my behavior; in short, they were told the obvious: I was extremely hyperactive; and, an uncontrollable disruption to the learning environment–if not the entire school. Hence, they were presented with an ultimatum: either they were to confer with our family pediatrician and have my problem controlled with ADDHC medication, or they would have to remove me from the school–and so, the Ritalin regimen began.
With a regular daily dose of Ritalin, things settled down a bit during my first grade year; however, the peace did not last long enough. In retrospect, what had happened back then was the early stages of academic tracking; for a long time I could recall many learning situations where challenges and scenarios were separated or sorted, and so too were students sorted and separated–by (perceived) ability. As coincidences or circumstances would have it, I was almost always paired or grouped with kids who were (perceived) as either “slower” or “lower performing”. As time and this situation progressed, the disruptive behaviors returned periodically, then more frequently; after a while, they once again became the norm. My mother never understood why things were so different at home: where she had me reading mystery books and historical fiction considerably outside the normal ZPD for a typical 5 year old; and, engaged in a subscription writer’s workshop (for 5th-and 6th graders), which would typically have me writing my own mystery stories, plays, poems, and short stories–sometimes for hours on end. Indeed, my mother and father were fraught with frustration, confusion, and an overall feeling of helplessness, because they did not or could not understand the disconnect between the daily negative reports they received from the school, in contrast to what they observed at home. Then came a defining (and damaging) moment in this ordeal: the (first) IQ test.
To make a long story short, school officials were completely perplexed by my behavior versus my parent’s pushback, so they administered the infamous IQ test to me at the beginning of my 2nd grade year. The results seemingly validated school officials in terms of their overall mindset and beliefs about me as it related my behavior and academic capability; hence, stiffened their resolve in terms of tracking or grouping me with lower achieving students, as a means of controlling or mitigating my unabatedly incorrigible behavior–it all went increasingly downhill from there. By the spring of my 2nd grade year, my parents had all but given up on my current school, as well as the Ritalin. They pulled me off Ritalin, cold turkey, and I experienced horrible withdraws; I became so sick that I missed the last 2 weeks of the school year. Then, fate intervened: my father suffered his first heart attack (to some extent I think the daily stress I caused was a contributing factor); my parents felt it was time for a reset, so they decided to pull me out of private school and send me to the local elementary school for 3rd grade.
Things Change but Ultimately Remain the Same
There was relative peace throughout 3rd grade year; free of Ritalin and with a fresh start in a new environment, I thrived because I was fortunate enough to be placed with a classroom teacher who saw through my disruptive tendencies and met them with increased academic challenges–with an extraordinary focus on reading and writing. By the end of 3rd grade, there was an entirely different tone and outlook as it related to my progress and potential. There was also another recommendation for IQ testing at the end of 3rd grade year; this time, the results revealed an entirely different picture, and the conversations about what to do moving forward centered around how to keep a highly intelligent and curious child challenged and motivated to focus his energies on academics as a means to abate disruptive behavior, which seemingly manifested out of boredom or frustration; summative testing supported this line of thinking–finally it seemed someone got it right.
Grades 4-6 marked a change in schools, from primary to elementary; nevertheless, progress was steady and summative testing continued to reflect above-average, if not exceptional, intellectual capability in reading and writing areas; as well, as inductive reasoning. A prime example of this occurred during a 5th grade Social Studies lesson on the pyramids, where the teacher posed a predictive question to the class as to how or what the ancient Egyptians were trying to accomplish in building their pyramids; and, I suggested “the pharaohs built their pyramids in alignment with the stars they studied in the heavens”–to the complete astonishment of the teacher, because she never provided any content or background information that might reasonably hint at that notion. This particular “incident” was probably the high-water mark in terms of my intellectual capabilities validated by the outcomes of my learning experiences. Sixth grade year was characterized by continued academic and intellectual validation and accomplishment; the only behavioral incident that occurred during the entire year was a fight–6th grade bully nonsense.
I do not know why, but I do know things changed dramatically in middle school; and, it started before I ever set foot on the campus; during pre-registration meeting with the guidance counselor. Indeed, things went very negative from that point onward, because the guidance counselor came into her dealings with my parents and I with her own judgments and preconceived notions. Consequently, the tendency to track me into lower achieving classes and/or groupings with lower performing students once again ensued, and so too did the disruptive behaviors. Despite repeated interfaces between my parents several members of the counseling staff, the pleas for reconsideration of course placement fell on deaf ears; yet there were infrequent “flashes” of my potential that could not be ignored: my outcomes-based achievement in English Language Arts and Social Studies were so high and far above anybody or anything the instructors could conjure up to prove otherwise, placement into advanced classes was the only alternative solution–with input and intervention from the principal. Nevertheless, the struggle continued through 7th grade and throughout 8th grade as well; the “revelation” moment came in the spring of 1979, during one final, fateful intervention meeting between my parents and the entire counseling staff and the principal.
The Crossroads, the Punchline, and the Point
That final meeting with the counselors and principal truly was a defining moment in terms of my future academic journey, because it was the day the underpinning belief systems of all involved or charged with the responsibility of providing me with the information and opportunities to advance myself academically (and socially). Somehow, somewhere, and someway in the heat of the moment during the meeting my parents expressed their frustrations at all that had and was occurring with me in terms of their desire for me to go to college–and “the truth” revealed itself, and depending on one’s perspective, it either set my parents free or bound them with the burden to come: the counseling staff’s response to my parents’ concern and frustration was, “they were mistaken to think I was college material. In fact, their best hope for me was that I could latch on to a vocational program somewhere and perhaps learn a trade”; little did they know, my parents were, once again, contemplating enrolling me into a private high school; in preparation for that possibility, I had taken an enrollment admissions examination that placed me in the top 15 percent of all applicants. In the wake of that examination outcome, the private school recruitment staff actively and aggressively followed-up with my parents in an attempt to have me enroll as a student in the fall of 1979: it was very rare for them to encounter an African American male with such, seemingly innate, intellectual curiosity and academic potential; in fact, when I ultimately enrolled in the fall of 1979 I was the only African American in the entire freshman class, and one only FOUR in the entire school–of 400+ students at the time.
I remember that meeting very well; the meeting changed my life forever; it was my last day attending a public school; upon that “revelation” of belief systems regarding my future potential, my father abruptly halted the dialogue, informed the counseling staff and principal their perceptions and responses were completely unacceptable, and informed the staff, “they would be withdrawing me from any further dealings with the school district at the end of the school day–there would be no further discussion”. I walked around in a daze for the rest of the day, distraught that I would not even get the chance to say goodbye to my friends; it was over with my father’s decision. Fortunately–or unfortunately (depending on your perspective), fate intervened in the form of an incident that afternoon where I was struck in a crosswalk by a distracted driver (no texting while driving back then though–in case you were wondering); in the wake of the accident, empathy got the best of my father, he let me finish out the school year and participate in 8th grade completion ceremonies.
The other details of those days and times are all but a distant memory; however, the ordeal as it relates to my education and everyone involved in determining its course remains vividly clear; looking back I remember it as the point in which I lost my relationship with my father, because from that point forward, he sacrificed his entire being, and took on 4 “moonlight” custodial jobs to make enough money to pay the tuition for my high school education: he refused to accept the prevailing belief systems about his son; and took it upon himself to secure an “equitable” (brought and paid for) academic setting that would provide him (me) with the essential depth, breadth, and quality of rigor to prepare him for college.
In essence, my father traded his own life, personal satisfaction, peace, and happiness for me to have at least an equitable opportunity in terms of access to being prepared for college. Believe or not, an Associates, Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate degrees later all I really wanted was my father; nevertheless, I am always mindful of and grateful for his sacrifice–it was the greatest expression of love and selflessness I could ever imagine one person could undertake or commit himself to. However, in the wake of his death in 2011, I selfishly mourned for the days and memories lost because of his sacrifice: ironically, all I ever really knew of him was his tireless work ethic–a noble attribute that came with a price.
My point, hence my enduring passion and struggle, as it relates to public education is that no person should ever have to sacrifice his or her entire quality of life and living just to ensure his or her child has equitable access to a quality, relevant, powerful, meaningful, Free and Public Education. My personal odyssey–both private and public–was defined by contrasting (if not conflicting) expectations borne of nothing else other than individual and/or collective belief systems. My question for others to ponder and perhaps discuss is, would this have been the course, hence the constant ordeal, if it were not for the fact that the situation involved an African American male? Indeed, we have longed intellectualized, rationalized, and/or dismissed the salient impact of institutional or systemic bias. Regardless of the initiative, I submit it may very well be the single-most important contributing factor to the perpetual nature of the achievement gap. In terms of my professional journey, I did not find public education; rather, it found me. My charge has been to ensure that every person around me believes and demonstrates through their pedagogy that all children can learn; all children deserve a rigorous, powerful, and meaningful education that will afford them access to the information and opportunities to advance themselves academically and socially; and, that all children, regardless of their social cultural background or socioeconomic status are entitled to exponentially limitless opportunities; and should be supported and motivated to achieve all that is possible–as far as their visions and dreams will take them.
This is how and why “it” happened for me; my hope is that all will deem this lengthy articulation a worthy read; and food for thought that resonates in the scope and context of the current state of affairs, relative to the endeavor to improve and enrich the lives, learning experiences, and outcomes of all our youth who comprise the constantly evolving dynamic of public education…