I need to be hyper-involved and hyper-vigilant to make sure that my children make it through the school system without becoming statistics.
Photo: Kearie Daniel
I’m fairly certain that my daughter’s kindergarten teacher thinks I’m a pushy, overachieving helicopter parent. The school term has barely started and I know my four-year-old has adjusted to kindergarten well. She knows her letters, shapes and colours, she can count to 20, and she is even starting to read. But here I am, standing at the schoolyard gate, insisting on a meeting with her teacher.
It’s part of the routine I first established with my son, who is now seven. Get him settled in school. Take time off work to be present at the school for drop-offs or pick-ups so that the teacher knows that I’m involved and that I care. (And I make my husband do this, too, so that they know there is a father.) And then, three or four weeks in, I request a meeting.
So here I am, asking for an interview with my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, a lovely woman and seasoned teacher who stares at me perplexed. “OK,” she says hesitantly, “what do you want to talk about? You were at the open house a few weeks ago, right?” Then she mentions that parent-teacher meetings are coming up.
“I know,” I say, fully aware of how awkward this conversation is becoming, “but I really like to be pro-active.”
“But she is fine,” she counters. And on and on we go, talking in circles, until vague, tentative plans for a meeting that neither of us truly wants is scheduled.
What my daughter’s teacher doesn’t realize, though, is that I don’t want to meet with her because I want to debate the merits of play-based learning (although that is a conversation I’d love to have). And I’m not that mom who expects her four-year-old to be reading chapter books—there is more to it than that. I want to talk to her for one simple reason: My daughter is black.
When I was growing up, being black in a Canadian school system meant that you or, more likely, your parents had to claw the path to graduation. My parents drudged through a grade three teacher intent on putting me in a special-education class; a grade four teacher who told my mother she couldn’t expect much from me, given where I was growing up (Jane and Finch); negative notes about “disruptive” and “hyperactive” behaviour; accusations that, as a nine-year-old, I was in a gang because I was friendly with the only other black child in my grade; and an overemphasis on my apparent athletic ability instead of academics. These incidents and persistent microaggressions are still so raw that my mother still doesn’t like talking about them to this day. But she fought the system, grade after grade, teacher after teacher, to propel me on my journey, first to an undergraduate degree and then to a master’s degree.
A few weeks ago, sitting at home at my office desk and sorting through my life, I came across a stack of my old report cards. As I started to go through them, straining to make out the notes in the days of typewriters and Liquid Paper, before computers and ClassDojo, her fight suddenly becomes clear. There it is, in black and white. The report cards told a story and showed a familiar pattern: Each new school year, midterm report cards came home littered with twos and threes, with poor and satisfactory circled in deep blue. My mother’s comments, questions and challenges on my behalf would line the margins and the back of the page. Calls were made, discussions were had and parent-teacher nights would come. They would meet her and see her grit, determination and will for me to succeed and, without fail, the next report card would be much better. In one case, there was even a second midterm report card and a handwritten note explaining how my behaviour had been markedly better in just two weeks, the fours and fives neatly circled, grades miraculously improved and guilt assuaged, no doubt.
I may not need to show up unannounced and sit in my kid’s class (as my mom did). I may not need to gather all the teachers in the library on their lunch breaks during Black History Month to educate them on how their own racism and biases show up in their marking and attitudes toward black students (as my mom did). I don’t have to do those things, but I still need to be hyper-involved and hyper-vigilant to make sure that my children make it through the school system without becoming statistics.
I have to because, for black students, the reality hasn’t changed nearly enough from 30 years ago, when I started first grade.
A report entitled “Towards Race Equity in Education” from York University, published April 2017, documents the following data:
- While they make up only 12 percent of the Toronto District School Board’s population, black students are more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts, with 42 percent having been suspended by the time they finish school.
- While data for elementary students are not available, U.S. data for the 2013–2014 school year show that even black preschoolers are suspended 3.6 times more than their white peers.
- Black students are less likely to be identified as gifted (at 0.4 percent) and more likely to be identified as having non-gifted exceptionalities (14 percent versus 10 percent of white students).
The stats do not favour my kids, and that means that, like my mother did for me each year, I must be present. Where other parents may have the choice to wait until parent-teacher night before meeting a teacher, that will be a rare privilege for me. While other children will be allowed to fail or be late bloomers, the reality is that the risks of this are too great for my children.
As young as they are, at seven and four, I have to push my kids to achieve. It’s why I sit outside a Kumon centre twice a week with many other parents, mostly people of colour or first-generation Canadians. It’s why I ensure that they’re reading well above grade level. It’s why I tell them they need to be better than and work twice as hard as everyone else. And it’s why I’m standing outside the kindergarten gate, asking for a meeting, because this is where it starts.