February 26, 2015

Teacher, I need you

Institutionalized racism prevents students of color from receiving the education they deserve from an early age.

Call me naive, call me an optimist, but I still strongly believe in the power of a dream. That something that tugs on the heart, that desire that won’t fade, that vision we all have of who we can be and what we can offer to the world—it’s what inspired me to become a teacher three years ago. It’s what keeps me teaching today.

When I boarded the plane for Houston the day after graduating from the University of Chicago, I was so excited for the chance to be a part of system that equips children with a quality education—one of the most powerful tools out there. I understood that their knowledge could serve as the key to open doors and the vehicle to new opportunities. It had done exactly that for me.

As a black girl growing up in historic Charleston, SC, the opportunity to dream was nearly stolen from me. In third grade I moved to a new school halfway through the year and was placed in an all-black classroom. In that room there were some kids coloring instead of reading, others were talking, and yet others sleeping. All this time, the teacher was paying no attention and sitting at her desk. I wondered, “Why aren’t we doing anything in class? Are the other kids learning? Are the other teachers teaching?”

My stay in that first classroom didn’t last long. A few days later I was pulled out and put into what I would later come to understand was the “Gifted and Talented” classroom. This was because my mother advocated for me and made a phone call that triggered the change to this more challenging and monitored atmosphere. In this new classroom, nobody looked like me. There were two other black students. For the remainder of my public education, this would continue. Classmates with the same racial identity as me were few and far between.

To this day I am disturbed by the idea that some parents didn’t see the classroom I left behind for what it was. They did not know that their child’s potential had been assessed by the darkness of their skin. For every child who spent the year in that classroom, there was a seed of potential not planted, a dream not watered, a talent not tilled, and a world-changing idea not harvested.

Now, standing at the front of my own classroom, as a teacher for Teach for America, I see what’s possible. This gap between what is and what could be will fuel my passions wherever I go.

Black History Month isn’t just about institutionalized racial discrimination. It is about the power of a dream and the right every child has to receive a quality education that will allow them to live their dreams to the fullest. This month my students are delving into Langston Hughes’ “Dreams” and “Dreams Deferred” as well as dissecting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We are discussing our hopes, we are being real about the barriers we face, and we are promising one another that we will never let go of our plans and ambitions.

It is our duty to ensure that we help our kids hold fast to their dreams and nurture them. They are, after all, our future.

Isis Smalls is an alumna of the College (A.B. ’12).

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