Letter to the Mothers of Black Boys

Although Lisa Calderón’s letter is to Mothers of Black Boys, there is a lot that we ALL — dominant culture and non-dominant culture educators, parents, and people — can gain from her words. In essence, Lisa Calderón describes the myriad of lies that are told to children and the false promises made to parents in order to fill seats in district turnaround schools and “high performing” charters. She indicts the lie that is forced upon black boys, written at the bottom of school emails, and posted on school walls for recitation: “Work hard, assume responsibility, and you will move ahead.”  Lisa, and her children, know all to well that working hard in a rigged game, a game where you are taught to comply and compete to get ahead, may result in test scores (if you are lucky) but comes at a cost that is too high. She, too, is critical of “No Excuses” schools that promise results that, yes, are long overdue, but need to be achieved with a socio-cultural consciousness and the voice and power of the community. Lisa recently wrote, “The missionary mentality of Killing the Indian, but saving the man is still implicitly rooted in our American Education System.” She has also said, “My children are survivors of an educational system that never intended them to be critical thinkers with individual aspirations and collective community responsibilities.” For Lisa and her children, mediocrity was never an option. A critical, individualized, and community responsive education–that does not assimilate, dominate, indoctrinate–is their tool for survival.

Written by Lisa Calderón

Dear Mothers of Black Boys,

I know you want the best for your child. I know that by the time you made a decision to come to my school you’ve gone through an exhaustive process of trying to pick the best school for him. I know it hasn’t been easy. It is likely that every school you have sent your child to has failed him in some way. I know that as a parent you are not asking for anything unreasonable: just a comprehensive education that you can have confidence in that will prepare your child for his future.

Let me summarize the promises that I think have been made to you by each school that you have placed your child into: First, that your child will be treated fairly. That despite the learning challenges or untapped brilliance he may have, the inadequacies in how teachers are prepared to educate urban children of color, and the substandard building facilities and teaching materials, you’ve been told that your child will be adequately prepared to graduate, successfully get admitted into a college and eventually be able to support himself in an expanding global economy.

Second, you were told that they were teaching your child to take initiative and to assume responsibility because that is the way to get ahead in life. By being educated, working hard and relying on his own merit, you were reassured that your child would move ahead.

Third, you were told that the school environment was competitive to teach your child about discipline and what it takes to win in order to drive him toward success. After all, getting into a good college is a competitive process. It is all about the hard work and preparation before graduation that will help secure your child’s placement in a top university, right?

Finally, you were told that they would teach your child to be a creative and innovative thinker, an important American attribute for success. They claimed to do this by focusing most of your child’s learning activities on trying to improve his reading and math scores, then testing him incessantly to measure progress. If your child was lucky, he was also drilled on the subject of science.

So why have you come to my school? Because you have figured out, Mother, that those promises made by administrators (to fill seats in their schools) were lies. You are here because you have seen the pain in your child’s eyes after he was not treated fairly. You have seen him go from an eager and confident explorer to a sullen and “reluctant learner.” You have seen him hide his homework, and even the favorite books you used to read to him, because they now represent chains that wear him down rather than wings that carried him to the sky. You have seen him isolated for speaking his mind, chastised for talking too loudly, or demeaned for not speaking up enough when the teacher calls on him in class.

So Mother, what would you like me to do for you? I’m speaking to you now, not as an educator, but also as a Black mother who has been through the anguished journey of the American Education System. Here is my advice: no matter what, never give up on your child. They will tell you he doesn’t want to learn, therefore, they must concentrate on the children who do. Insist that they teach him just like they would a child whose parents have all the resources and influence at their disposal. They will try to put the responsibility for his learning back onto his small shoulders. Tell them to do their jobs and engage him by opening up his mind to limitless possibilities. They will tell you that it is your fault for not reinforcing their lessons at home. Tell them you’re job is to provide for your family the best way you know how, and to create the path to the doorstep of their school, which you have done. Finally, tell them that even though they only have your child temporarily, he is your child forever and you will do everything possible for them to see your child as you do: your pride and joy – and America’s future.

*For more information on preparing culturally responsive and critical educators/students for social justice, please visit: amberkkim.com

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