Nothing like a sixth-grade report card to tell you you’re not good enough. I was an enthusiastic student until I was told I wasn’t. I had no trouble learning — and actually enjoyed it. Up until sixth grade all I got were A’s. You’d think I was a great student.
Then came teacher evaluations. I sat across from Mr. E—— in his little office. He told me I was one of the most well-liked students, and my work was good. But then he asked me if there was anything I could improve on. I was half-afraid I’d be punished for getting the answer wrong. So I stared blankly, at a loss for what was wrong with me.
“You don’t ask questions in class,” he finally said, to my silence. “You don’t participate.”
I had no idea I was quieter than other kids. Just like my skin color, it wasn’t something I became aware of until kids and teachers prodded at it. I had been made to become excessively aware of the fact that I was Black, from comments like “You should grow an Afro,” or “Do you know how to rap?” And now, Mr. E——’s comment on my lack of participation gave me my first peek into the kind of student I was.
Before then, being an observer felt as natural as putting on socks. Where everyone else saw a problem, I just saw myself. I preferred to just watch, and listen, and take things in. To me, that felt like the obvious way to learn.
Is there anything wrong with not participating? I wondered, as I thought of how to fix the issue. Are you not supposed to listen?
The questions plagued me through every grade that followed, as teachers became offended and approached this “issue” in their own ways. I didn’t know how to express myself without fearing a negative reaction. If it was an issue to be who I naturally was, what would people think when I forced myself to say more — to be more like everybody else?
I didn’t know how to ask these questions. It seemed like to fit in, or to perform well, I’d now have to turn into someone else. I internalized every bump in communication as my own mistake, while quietly asking Jesus Christ for help and getting no answer.
My eighth-grade math teacher pulled me aside after class and demanded to know why I was so quiet. I was not helpful to the classroom environment.
There were a million things I could have said:
I’m afraid to speak, in general. My parents never taught emotional expression.
I suffer from depression and social anxiety disorder, and constantly wonder if I’m not good enough.
I do care, and want to learn, but I can hardly concentrate on the lesson, because I’m too busy wondering if I’m doing something wrong.
There were lots of issues and half-explanations for my behavior. But my teacher had already decided on his own negative interpretation. It led me to wonder if the reasons even mattered, if my struggles mattered, or if I mattered.
My math teacher approached me again, angrier, after I promised him I’d do better, and still sat quietly in class. It seemed the only important thing was that I behave like everyone around me. But I didn’t know how to do that.
Had I been approached with sensitivity, rather than snap judgments, I may have changed for the better. Had I been given a road map for how to express my questions without feeling anxious, I may have found a way to speak my mind. Instead, being called for my lack of participation made me retreat even further into my shell.
My teachers assigned their own answers to my inability to speak up. Some of those answers felt like they’d been pulled from a list of reasons why young Black boys would be quiet.
He’s unable to retain information because he’s not as capable as his peers.
He’s rebelling against the school system, or against me, the teacher.
He simply doesn’t care.
I felt it in the way they looked at me — like I was a problem. As I grew, I learned more about how my white peers thought of me. I was a kid with the weird hair texture that they touched without permission. I was the kid who must have been stupid because he didn’t speak. Asking a question at all would mean admitting I didn’t know something. It would add fuel to the stigma that already existed about my intelligence, or lack thereof.
I had to give myself the freedom not to judge myself by grades, or by teachers’ perceptions. Just because they didn’t understand who I was didn’t mean I was less valuable. It didn’t mean I had nothing to say, or that I didn’t care. I had to learn this on my own, over many years.
There’s often no one to turn to when you’re a kid, except for your parents and teachers. Being “different” is not celebrated in grade school. Instead, it’s punished out of you. I knew I enjoyed learning, but I struggled to do it because I found no one guiding me in a way that made sense. That became the sum of my experience.
Today I know my grades didn’t define me, and the metrics of value weren’t real. With no one to tell me this, it took me a long time to come into my own. There are things that are unspoken and unheard about kids who don’t speak up. We have to allow kids to reveal themselves when they’re ready, and in the circumstances that feel comfortable to them. Authority figures have to lead with questions that help them find the root of the problems they see with children, or they risk making those problems even worse.