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Willing to Listen?

Articles Inspirational articles from Hay House authors

Willing to Listen?

Lifeline needed for America’s youth.
Tavis  Smiley
Tavis Smiley More by this author
Oct 24, 2011 at 10:00 AM

We’ve seen the Hollywood script dozens of times: A long-suffering, white educator (insert actor of choice: Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, Matthew Perry, Michelle Pfeiffer, etc.) is assigned to a ghetto school with dangerous, low-income, smart-ass, and obnoxious “I-just-don’t-give-a-damn” students. The benevolent, frustrated, but stubborn teacher refuses to give up on these poor souls. He/she bucks the stale, bureaucratic educational system, to the chagrin of supervisors. He/she helps the deprived students confront their inner-city demons and discover their true gifts, purpose, and worth.

Epilogue: The maligned, mistreated, and misunderstood educator has been vindicated. Pessimistic, frowning, hard-core students have been transformed into smiling, grateful, optimistic vessels of limitless possibilities.

Queue the sentimental music, role the credits, fade to black.
In real life, there is no fade, just shades of Black—bleak statistics and dismal educational outcomes; Black boys and low-income students failing in schools and languishing in conditions that will lead to gloomy futures; lives punctuated by unemployment, crime, poverty, prison, and early death.

Last year, the Shott Foundation’s report Yes We Can: The 2010 Schott 50 State Report on Black Males in Public Education showed that the overall 2007–8 graduation rate for Black males in the United States was only 47 percent, and that half of the states experienced graduation rates for Black male students below the national average.

With Black boys perilously high on the “endangered species” list, we must force ourselves to ask the question Tinsel Town tends to gloss over: Who’s teaching these African American boys, and what do they learn?

The hallways of Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center are eerily antiseptic. The eye gravitates to the sparkling diamond-shaped linoleum floor tiles in white, orange, and brown. The tiles provide a much-needed respite from the puke-yellow paint covering the walls and the massive steel doors marked Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3, with no ending number in sight.

Against this backdrop, we spoke with six inmates of the juvenile detention center. Some were “boys” in age only. Already a couple had the demeanor of hardened adult inmates. Others displayed scars on their arms, hands, faces—and in their eyes and on their souls.

Cynicism and the hard look in his eyes seem to fade as Jerrell listened to fellow detainees share their stories or speak of their misdeeds and wounds. Sporting a drab green baseball cap, green jacket, and blue jeans, Jerrell crossed and uncrossed his arms and spoke up when Smiley asked if “trauma” played any role in Black boys winding up in the criminal justice system: “I was, like, in the fourth grade. I had a teacher who told me I wasn’t never going to amount to anything, so when I was told that, I was still angry and I just seen a lot of stuff too.”

We pressed for elaboration, asking Jerrell if he “bought into that lie.”

“No, I didn’t buy into it,” the young man replied unconvincingly. “It just got to me emotionally. Like for a teacher to tell a student that—you’re supposed to embrace your students and make them feel good about themselves. So with that being said, emotionally that hurt.”

Emotionally, psychologically, and physically, hundreds of thousands of low-income minority students and an overwhelming number of Black male students are hurt by a system that has yet to acknowledge and honor their personal, educational, or cultural needs. In fact, when statistics are cross-referenced and examined, a spotlight shines on a sinister, institutionalized structure that betrays the promise of opportunity and well-being via a “good education.”

Black boys are disproportionately removed from mainstream education by imposing disciplinary interventions or by tracking them into special-education programs, said Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu. Of the Black boys who enter special education, only 10 percent return to the mainstream classroom and stay there, he adds, and only 27 percent graduate high school. Special Education has become metaphorically this century’s “door of no return.”

“Where have all of our Black sons gone?” asked Dr. Rosa Smith, former president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, in her December 2003 essay, Race, Poverty & Special Education: Apprenticeships for Prison Work. “They are first sent to special-education programs, which for all too many African American boys are not doorways to opportunity, but trapdoors sending them willy-nilly to war, to jail, to lives of unfulfilled promise.”

Smith used a snippet from the 2002 President’s Commission on Excellence in Special Education report, A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Their Families, to reinforce her point: “Many of the current methods of identifying children with disabilities lack validity. As a result, thousands of children are misidentified every year . . .”

An African American boy can go from kindergarten to sixth grade without ever coming in contact with an African American male teacher. Dr. Ivory A. Toldson, an associate professor with Howard University’s Counseling Psychology program, said the absence of Black male teacher-student contact contributes to some of the “nonacademic-related” disparities that impact Black boys, such as placement in special education. He emphasizes the word “nonacademic” because, most of the time, Black boys are placed in special education as a result of their behavior, not their academic capacities.

“A lot of times it’s because their behaviors are misunderstood by the staff that works with them. It could also be associated with the disproportionate number of Black males who are suspended,” Toldson explained.

Effectively interacting with Black boys is hampered by teachers of different races, genders, environments, and backgrounds assigned to teach them. Many teachers bring their attitudes about stereotypes and their biases about Black communities and Black children to the classroom.

No doubt, the fourth-grade teacher who told Jerrell he’d never amount to anything in life was probably talking to a stereotype, not to a child who would be emotionally scarred by his words. Imagine the daily indignities schoolchildren in low-income communities face when stopped, searched, and asked their gang affiliation by police. Consider the psychic impact of arriving at school every day, walking through metal detectors, having your backpack searched, and being frisked and treated like a dangerous suspect.

“Treating all students like they are security risks brings down the school environment; it hurts education, it doesn’t help it,” Toldson said. He takes some comfort in the fact that numerous government agencies, education experts, and major foundations have all studied the issues related to the crisis facing Black boys and low-income students. Many, he said, have taken concrete steps toward, or implemented admirable initiatives aimed at, addressing the problems. However, even Toldson recognizes that dismissive attitudes and outright disdain for Black youth has been methodically and systematically woven into the fabric of the American psyche. The backup plan, he says, is to inform and empower parents and communities so they can make school districts listen.

Jerrell, the teen who was told he’d amount to nothing in the fourth grade, made an interesting observation about “listening” during his interview. He was referring to hardheaded youth his own age, but his words are on target for a school system in need of drastic change: “It’s just, are you willing to listen? Are you willing to take that positive advice that they’re giving? Most people are not, though. Like, they say they’re listening, but it goes through one ear and out the other.”

About Author
Tavis  Smiley
Tavis Smiley is a broadcaster, author, advocate, and philanthropist. Tavis Smiley continues to be an outstanding voice for change.  Smiley is currently the host of the late-night television talk show Tavis Smile Continue reading