Rest in peace to Mr. Earl Simmons, popularly known as DMX. I pray that his soul is at rest.
What fascinates me about the life of a person, particularly artists who become celebrities, are the events and moments that fueled the person they became. When I think of Earl Simmons and his untimely death, I can’t help but think of the adults who failed him.
In a society where personal hardships are blamed on a lack of responsibility; it is easy to blame Earl Simmons for his shortcomings and ultimately his own death. However, as an educator who works with children, I am accustomed to considering the nurture in tandem with the nature.
For me, the art of teaching isn’t only about the content. It is about using who that child is to teach the content. It means, I need to invest in my students; every one of them – even the students are thought to be lost causes by others.
Earl Simmons left us with many memorable songs, stories and prayers. He also left us with a window into his pain to understand the person he became. Sadly, I think back on a podcast where he revealed that he was tricked into a crack cocaine addiction by an OG from his neighborhood.
If you know anything about the neighborhood, you know that older streetwise gentlemen play a fatherly role to the younger men, particularly those without fathers. This OG introduced him to rap music but also to controlled substances. Earl Simmons never smoked anything before, but he trusted this individual and when given a blunt to smoke, he thought nothing of it.
However, it was laced with crack cocaine.
After telling that story, Earl Simmons asked the question, “Why would you do that to a child? He was like 30 and he knew I looked up to him. Why would you do that to someone who looks up to you?”
He was 14 years old at the time and he struggled with drug addiction until his death.
I’ve taught a few students who’ve struggled with addiction as adolescents – they were the exception and not the rule. However, I recall how those students were regarded by some of my colleagues. Whether or not they knew what led to their self-medication, some of those teachers dismissed those kids, citing that their futures were already written because of their “life choices.”
Those teachers had no desire to invest in the lives of those kids. Those teachers were sure to celebrate when those students were absent from school, followed by the refrain that Black and Brown children, and families, don’t care about education enough to make it to school regularly.
Why would they care?
Love of Black and Brown children wasn’t why they were in those classrooms. But they enjoyed working with those “exceptional students;” Black and Brown children who defied the stereotypes many of them believed.
Those colleagues lacked empathy, compassion and an understanding on why some of our students were routinely absent.
Earl Simmons wasn’t invested in; not as a 14-year-old and not as a young student entering school.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he detailed his struggles as a kindergartener and first grader:
I’d finish my work fast and get bored. Or be frustrated with the [what] she’d be askin’. And I wasn’t afraid of teachers. I’d tell ’em to shut up. They called me Crazy Earl. I didn’t give a ****… They thought I was a bad kid, pain in the ass. I was actually a very bright child who was easily bored and frustrated. They wanted to treat me like every other kid in the class. Can’t do that to me. I wasn’t every other kid in the class, man. I thought a lot more than every other kid in the class… I wasn’t no bad ******’ kid, man.
They, the educators trusted with his development, called him crazy Earl.
His childhood was a struggle; Earl dealt with emotional pain at an early age. He was angry and when teased or provoked, he lashed out. When Earl got flustered or frustrated, he lashed out.
I can recall teaching students like Earl Simmons; highly intelligent young people yet traumatized by unfortunate circumstances, only to be further traumatized by the adults who wrote them off as lost causes. I struggled with some of those students myself but not because they were bad kids. Rather it was because they were failed by so many adults, adults in their families and the adults in the school building, that when they met me, they assumed me to be another adult destined to fail them.
Teaching them history wasn’t my primary concern. My primary concern was building trust. That is hard but necessary work that required genuine care, time and investment. Being policed wasn’t what they needed; they needed discipleship.
However, we live in a nation that throws its “problems” in prison or in the case of children, in school suspension. If that doesn’t work, out of school suspension of expulsion. Black children like young Earl Simmons are disproportionately suspended from school… even before they reach kindergarten. I suspect Earl Simmons had his fair share of suspensions, which led to him being institutionalized.
There is a lesson in the story of Earl Simmons. The first is that no matter who tries to dampen your genius, they can’t no matter how hard they try. But it’s up to you to recognize your own genius and guard it with your life.
That’s the lesson for students, particularly Black students.
The lesson for teachers, specifically white teachers, is that parents aren’t the only nurturers of children: educators are and just because some Black children thrive despite your negligence and racism, many more do not. Every child certainly has genius like Earl Simmons. But teachers factor into how a child’s genius is nurtured or neglected.
It’s not that only a few children are exceptional. It’s that only a few children have the supports to overcome your mediocrity, your negligence and your racism.
It’s why advocates of Black children say hire more Black teachers – because Black teachers recognize the genius of Black children. The lesson for district leaders is to recognize it also.
It’s not that Black children cannot overcome culturally irresponsive and incompetent teacher pedagogy and a lack of teacher investment. It’s that those things translate into Black children receiving harsher disciplinary measures when what they need is compassion and their genius cultivated.
Earl Simmons was a genius on the mic who overcame the adults who failed him yet struggled with the impact their failures had on his life. In the same way our success is predicated on the support of others, so too are our failures predicated on the negligence of others.
If you take anything from the life of Earl Simmons, know that he was a genius despite those who failed him; how much more could he have been if he was not failed to begin with?
How much more could Black children be is they weren’t failed by their teachers? If you fail to cultivate and nurture the genius that is Black children, the genius that James Baldwin referred to as tremendous energy, you’ve succeeded at cultivating another dark man X, dark woman X.