An Interview with a 27-Year-Old Black Father: Trying to Avoid the School to Prison Pipeline

In the article Is the Road to Special Education (for Black Boys) Paved with the White Educator’s Paperwork?, we meet Randy for the first time.

Some Context

Let’s imagine something for a moment.  There is a Black father, Randy, who struggles to maintain employment. He was born and raised in an urban area. He moves outside of the city and hopes for a safer school for his children. Randy is not certified in special education. He does not know his parental rights; nor does he know what to ask or demand. He is 27-years-old and has a 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.  Randy did not finish high school, nor did his father or his grandfather.  All of these men have also been incarcerated.  Imagine Randy at an IEP meeting, sitting at a conference table with 5 educators, all women — 4 of them White. Imagine his nervousness as he tries to simply follow the conversation.  Imagine that this father feels as lost as if he were in a dark, windowless room in the middle of the desert, this father who is at the school and who wants to offer his son more than he had.

When you read about Randy, what do you feel?  Compassion? Empathy?  Disgust?  What do you think?  Are you judging him for not knowing? Blaming him for his ignorance? Are you thinking about the father’s responsibility or about your own responsibility as an educator? Are you wanting to do something? Do nothing? What are you noticing about your own thoughts and assumptions?

As the debate continues about how to improve urban schools for children, many families of color are looking elsewhere…outside of America’s urban centers with the hope that their children will be safer and will therefore learn more. But sometimes, what we see on a macro level in cities, we find on a micro level in suburban areas. In this article a Black father speaks about his experience growing up in Baltimore and what is was like to be student. He then reflects on what this means for him parenting a Black male child in a suburban setting.

The Interview

Question: Tell me about your experiences in school.

Answer: School never was interesting to me. It was never fun. I always knew I didn’t like school. From the very beginning. I failed kindergarten or 1st grade.Then, I failed the 6th grade. My dad was gone to prison before I even started school. So my mom got a step father. He didn’t express himself a lot. He didn’t talk a lot. No one really liked him in the house. We loved and respected him. He did provide, and he wasn’t in the streets, but he didn’t talk. Then, I think about my son now. I’m trying to get him right, right now.I’m learning some very valuable things. Like I didn’t know that him being ready for kindergarten was such a big deal.

Q: When did you start skipping school?

A: Middle school. 6th grade was when I started getting bad. Hanging out all night.

Q: When did you feel successful in school?

A: I never really felt successful in school except for when I was in the 7th grade and I got a 98% in science from an African dude. He was a substitute, and he acted like he really, really wanted me to do better. He wanted me to start boxing and all that.   He wanted me to stay after school and my mother would ask, “What are you staying after school for?”   We had a good connection, me and the teacher. So, I wanted to do well in school. When my homeboys would hook class, I would hook someone else’s class and not his. We had a good relationship. He would hang my work up and make me feel like I was smart.  He was the only teacher that did that.

Q: What did he do to make you feel comfortable with him?

A: I vaguely remember how we initially started building relationship…he was tough. He didn’t tolerate nothing. He was mean.   But he showed interest in me.   He might have seen I was going down the wrong track.  I don’t know how to explain how he connected with me but when you feel it, you feel it. He helped me, and he made it fun.  But the biggest thing is that he expected me do turn in my work.  He didn’t take excuses and then he would let me and the whole class know that I was doing well.

Q: What happened after the 7th grade?

A: I moved to another school and nobody really liked me. There is a lot of drama when you’re a kid. People don’t like you.  They want to fight you. For example, a dude’s girl might like you. I got suspended a lot because of things over girls, but I take some responsibility; I also flirted I guess. One time, I got jumped by the whole school. Like 16 people jumped me. That’s a lot when you’re in middle school. They stomped me bad. When I was in the 5th grade, the 8th graders jumped me too. I was big for my age, but I was bone skinny.  Because of my size, I guess they saw me as a threat.

Q: Why do you think you started skipping?

A: My skipping started with me not liking school and not liking the work. It starts there.  I know we are supposed to do our homework and stuff, but we are still kids. Then,  I wasn’t doing my work.  After awhile, I didn’t want to do my work. So, I’m in school, falling behind in my work and not feeling too smart.  My teachers just kind of let me not do the work.  I’m not saying that they didn’t care.  I’m just saying that they didn’t do what the African teacher did to help me.  Then, I turn behind me and see other bad kids throwing paper, playing, mocking the teacher. Asking to go to the bathroom 10 times in 30 minutes. Finding something to get mad about so they can storm out the class, trying to persuade kids to follow them cause it’s cool.  So, in my classes where I wasn’t doing the work, it was easier for me to follow the bad kids.

Q: What did school do to help you?

They didn’t do anything. No coming to my house. None of that. I got suspended. I got detention a lot. Nothing with the school counselor. They called my mom. She was old fashioned…she would wile out and raise her voice and try to intimidate.  My mother is a good woman for real. She had good intentions. Like a pure heart.  She got that in her somewhere. But nobody really helped like how this one lady goes all out for my son.  No one was doing that for me.

Q: What does the lady do to go all out for you son?

A: Well, my son has some issues with his speaking.  He stutters and it took him a long time to talk.  Me and his mom knew something was wrong but we didn’t do anything about it.  So this lady, Stephanie, who knows my family heard my son talk and started going to meetings with me at the school.  In some of the meetings, it was hard to follow the terms they were using, Stephanie explained everything and stood up for my son.  I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know until Stephanie started explaining everything.  And now my son is getting speech help.  It took a long time and a lot of meetings, but he is finally getting the help he needed.

Q: What does all of this make you think now that you’re raising a Black boy?

A: Now that I’m speaking about this now, right now I’m thinking I gotta show my son a different way. I want him to simply enjoy education, and take it for what it’s worth. Education is way more valuable than I thought it was growing up. It’s extremely valuable. You can win with education. That’s the way. Just knowing things. Even in conversation just knowing things. I want him to know things.  I don’t want him to be in a meeting for his son and not really know what’s going on. That means he needs to do well in school now.

Q: What does that make you think about what your experiencing with your son’s school?

A: I think the school does ok. He likes the teachers. They see the value of education because they are teachers, but I think they need to extend more help. Even in kindergarten, he needs homework. Why doesn’t he have homework? Like a lot of us parents don’t know what we don’t know.  Sometimes it’s because of how we grew up.  If we went to bad schools, then we compare our kids’ school to that. And we trust the school to do right by our kids because we are thinking at least there aren’t a lot of fights. I’m learning that if you change one, then another one, then another one before you know it, it’s a whole village you’re changing. Like Stephanie focusing on my son.  That helps me to be a better father because I am learning things I didn’t know.   All we need is another person to focus on my daughter and then I focus on both of them. Before you know it, everyone gets an education. Cause if we let it go now, like my mother didn’t know what to do, then children lose. I’m the oldest. So I’m just like him. So I’m learning how to do all of this with my son since he is my first child.

Q: What are some things you would do differently? What are some things you would do the same?

A: I would be a little more hands on with him. Instead of showing him once and telling him “Go,” I’d show him three times. I’d be a little more patient with things. Instead of getting frustrated because he is not up to par or because he is lacking in some areas or letting things in the world frustrate me and in some way, I would be more patient do that I don’t take it out on him.  Instead of saying, “Son, I don’t want to play right now or say my ABCs right now,” I’d be more hands on.  What I’d keep the same is the affection. And I trust what he says. If he says, “Daddy I don’t want to go downstairs” cause he is scared, I’m going to listen him and then encourage him to overcome that fear. Fear stops us from a lot of things. I want him to be comfortable around me and with me. It’s the affection that I will never change with my son.

Some Implications

When you read about Randy, what do you feel?  Compassion? Empathy?  Disgust?  What do you think?  Are you judging him for not knowing? Blaming him for his ignorance? Are you thinking about the father’s responsibility or about your own responsibility as an educator? Are you wanting to do something? Do nothing? What are you noticing about your own thoughts and assumptions?

Before considering how to apply what we are learning from Randy, take note of your heart, of your mindset, of your thoughts.  Simply enacting a strategy will not lead to equity unless that strategy is grounded in the notion that human rights are to be afforded to all people and that very specific demographics (e.g., African Americans, Latinos, those of lower income, those with less education, Muslims) are often denied these rights.

  1. Self-Reflection & Interpersonal Relationships: In the book Cracking the Corporate Code, the author presents different kinds of power. The three kind of power that are the most relevant to consider are a) Associative power which involves relationships with powerful people, b) Assertive power which involved the person acting as if they have the right to power, and c) Positional power which means the person has a role that gives them the right to make certain decisions. In thinking of how schools engage with young, Black fathers, it is helpful to consider how identity reveals itself through these three kinds of power (Associative: A young, Black father from a low income background may have less power in schools where the majority of voices are White and female. Assertive: A young, Black father from a low income background may be accustomed to schools silencing him and therefore my not comfortably navigate school settings, and Positional: While maleness and whiteness (when combined) are values, maleness and Blackness is often depicted differently.  In other words, maleness can be seen as a deficit when it is Black urban maleness we are discussing.  Educators have an opportunity to assess the degree to which this power is used to serve the causes of educational equity or to distract from it, with a particular consideration of the Black, urban father.
  2. Data Analysis: Some educators are uncomfortable with focusing on Black boys.  It’s almost like the response that all lives matter when communities assert that Black Lives Matter.  The common analogy of a doctor looking at all of someone’s bones when the broken bone is in the arm applies here.  To put it more plainly, some educators want to look at all data rather than looking at data for a specific demographic of students.  I have heard educators say that it is not fair to focus on one demographic over another.   Ironically, by NOT focusing on very specific demographics, particularly the ones demonstrating the greatest need for support, we are NOT focusing on all students.  We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable with using data to support all students.  That means that we need to see each student.  Disaggregating the data allows for us to do just that.
  3. Team Management: Often, data for Black and Brown boys in urban areas tells a very clear story about the need for specific interventions with Black males.  When I was a principal, I noticed fewer and fewer Black males in the college prep courses and higher numbers of this same demographic in special education courses.  While I advocated for individual students, as a school leader, I did not examine data specifically for Black males most at risk.  And I should have.  In this way, conversations with assistant principals, parents, central office personnel, and teachers could have been more grounded in data relevant to the daily work we were doing.  In weekly check-ins and reflections, ask colleagues and managers to hold you accountable and managers hold direct reports accountable to working with Black fathers differently. Include the weekly discussion items a) What evidence do we have that Black fathers feel welcome in this school, b)  Who on staff has the best relationships with Black fathers?  What can we learn from them?,  c)  Are there ways for us to be more supportive of Black fathers in their work with their children?
  4. Systems Management: Achievement data is usually disaggregated by race or gender but not by race and gender.  As such, it can be cumbersom to even note trends in what is happening with Black male students.  School systems and networks need to ensure that this data is more accessible and then use this data to further coaching, training, and professional development outcomes.
  5. Black Male Parent Engagement: Schools often defer to the female parent or family member.  This inclination makes sense in some ways.  The majority of school staff are women and more women from families attend school-related events.  But there is an opportunity here.  When Obama was in office, there was an increased focus on what is happening with Black and Brown boys; but are schools operating differently as it pertains to engaging Black fathers?  Are we asking for their advice?  Listening to their counsel?  Speaking to them in ways that are honorable even when we disagree with their choices, their attire, the way they speak?  Maybe some of us are, but we could do better.

Randy represents thousands of Black fathers.  Black fathers represent thousands of Black boys in this country.  If you are an educator, and touch the life of a Black male child, you have a responsibility to be highly responsive to the needs of the Black child.  This includes making a consistent effort to connect with the parents, including Black parents, and especially Black fathers.

What do you think?

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Kelli Seaton

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