Monday, December 12, 2011

Nothing Cute About It

The firestorm surrounding the suspension of a 9 year-old boy from a North Carolina school has resulted in the suspension being rescinded and the resignation of the school principal. Emanyea Lockett was originally suspended for sexual harassment for calling his teacher “cute.” According to various news sources, the child did not say it in the presence of the teacher, but was talking to a friend when his comment was overheard by a substitute teacher who then reported it to administration.

I am disturbed by this story on many levels because I am left with many unanswered questions. For starters, I can’t believe that the principal, a 44-year veteran educator would have to end his career over something so seemingly insignificant. I can’t help but think that something’s amiss and we the unknowing public will never know the full details.

What especially concerns me about this situation besides the unknown is that it brings to mind the racist and sexist undertones that still permeate our society. Though we live in the 21st century, we are still operating from a 19th century perspective on race and gender because we still view the black male as a sexual predator and the white woman as a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. Although I don’t know the race the teacher involved, I do know that the black male is feared by some of those charged with teaching him because they take their cues from society at large.

Many of our teachers in urban schools are white females, which makes wonder how this social-sexual dynamic plays out in the classroom. I have seen glimpses of it, and it ain’t nothing nice to see. There are tons of literature on the behavioral and academic performances of black males. Are the problems facing the African-American male student a self-fulfilling prophecy brought on as a matter of social conditioning?

Society pounds into my head to fear and/or loathe black males. And if I, an African-American woman who lives and works in Urban America can sometimes fall prey to such stereotypical thinking, what about those who are two or three times removed from the population they teach. As I grapple with the dynamics of this story, I reflect on my own teaching experience. When I was a mentor teacher, I had experiences with teachers who were afraid of their students and it showed, and the students took advantage of the situation. It was a case of what came first, the chicken or the egg?

Every week when I walked into this young white female teacher's classroom, I had to talk her down off the ledge. She had previously taught Mexican students, so she didn't understand why she couldn't relate to her African-American students. One week she was particularly disturbed because a black male student had molded a piece of clay into a phallic shape and acted as though he were masturbating in her class. She reported the incident, and disciplinary action was taken against the student, but it was not to her satisfaction. The child was not suspended, and he probably should have been. This incident along with other issues she had caused her to resign at the end of the year.

Another young white woman wore her hair up all the time, and one day she wore it down, and it fell past her shoulders. The boys in her class were in awe. We live in a culture that worships long hair, and blond hair is even better, so it was no surprise that she got a reaction from her male students, but the incident “creeped” her out, and she decided not to wear her hair down. In both instances, I didn’t know what to say, where to begin to try and create a level of empathy and understanding.

As an educator, I have spent most of my time in middle school or junior high, and I have been subjected to the admiration of some of my students over the years, but none of which I would classify as sexual harassment though I am fully aware that students can and will make inappropriate comments, and should be disciplined accordingly. But my problem is two-fold: we don't discipline fairly as evidenced by the high percentage of African-American males suspended across the nation, and we allow our children to live in a culture that reeks of sexuality, and blame them when they lack the filters needed to discern what is and isn't appropriate.

I don't know all the details in this case. what I do know is that it's not a case of black and white, but various shades of grey. Until we address the dynamics of what's really going on in our schools, things will never change. We'll keep looking for scapegoats to blame instead of looking into the heart of the issue. Black boys are neither angels nor devils, and neither are those of us who educate them. In the end, we're all human. And that's what we all need to understand.

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