Growing up I moved around a lot but where I had finally stayed for good was in Metuchen, New Jersey. I moved there in the 7th grade and it was a big adjustment. Growing up I was a HUGE class clown. Anything I could do to get a laugh out of people, I most likely tried. Looking back, I didn’t really have any aspirations for anything except just to be liked by people. I thought if I made people laugh, that they would like me, and that I was making some sort of difference in my head. Or, so I thought.
Academics wise, there wasn’t much going on there. My grades were mediocre, not horrible but also not amazing. I was one of those kids that tried to do just enough to get by.
I remember in the 8th grade I had a health teacher that I will never forget. Her name was Mrs. Freeman. She was the only black teacher who was also a woman. At that time that did not mean much to me, but of course, that speaks levels to me now, and to our conversation that I will explain later in this story. She was, what many of us educators call “Warm/Strict”. She came off as very stern, but we all knew that she came from a good place and she constantly reminded us of that as well. At the time, I did NOT like her. She always seemed to be the hardest on me, and at the time I had no idea why. I thought she didn’t like me, so I didn’t like her either. Don’t judge me, this is my middle school logic kicking in!
I’ll never forget this encounter I had with her close to the end of my 8th grade year. It was the last week of school and we had to complete this end of the year project. On the day my project was due I came into class and handed her a half-done project that was nowhere near presentable. I remember making some crude joke about it and as usual getting a laugh out of the class. Mrs. Freeman was not amused. She asked me to meet with her outside and the class went QUIET. I was thinking “crap why can’t she just give me a break, I’m probably never gonna see her again after I graduate”. We ended up having a conversation I will always remember.
Mrs. Freeman: Jamie (my childhood nickname), do you know that you are an endangered species?
Me: What does that mean?
Mrs. Freeman: It means that statistically speaking, more than half of black boys at your age are likely to either drop out of school, end up in prison, or both.
Me: I mean, that sucks I guess, but what does that have to do with me?
Mrs. Freeman: What I’m trying to say is that you are in a very unique position in your current life. You are provided with resources and people who are invested into your growth so that you do not end up contributing to that statistic. You have so much potential make a lasting impact and impression on several young man just like you but you are wasting it with silly jokes and lackluster grades. When you enter high school next year several of these teachers will see the color of your skin and will instantly expect the worse. Do not prove them right. As I said, you have the potential to make a difference.
Now after that talk I said thank you and went back to class. That conversation stuck with me for a few days and then I ended up forgetting about it until I got older. Besides my parents, an adult, especially a teacher, had never told me something like that before. Something so empowering, uplifting, and candid yet from a loving perspective. I want to leave you with this question. Have you ever had a teacher reach out to you in that way before? What I find so important in my career in education is having these talks with students, especially students of color. Everyday students in my demographic (black male) are left through the cracks because teachers see a behavior and attribute that behavior to who they are as a person. Mrs. Freeman knew I wasn’t my behavior, she knew my effort I put into my classwork was not who I was. She was right. As an educator we must take extra steps to connect with the students who are often labeled as a “problem child”. Although it may be difficult, they deserve and need a connection with an adult who is invested into them just as much as their peers. Although there was no immediate change from that talk, little did I know that Mrs. Freeman planted a seed in me that blossomed into something beautiful. Please feel free to leave in the comments below of a teacher or mentor-like figure in your school who took time to see you through in your journey of growth.
This is not the end, but just the beginning of how I slowly discovered my passion, and how it changed my life. If you have any questions please feel free to comment below!