It’s a bit mind-boggling how many folks reached out to share their support and experiences after I published my Open Letter last fall. What I know is that what is happening to me is happening to so many other families around the country.
Black and Brown boys are being pushed out of preschool so frequently we have to call it an epidemic.
I’d like to say that we have since landed in a place that helped my child develop the “lagging skills” he needs help with (and here I cite the powerful, life-changing work–for me–of Dr. Ross Greene whose idea of lenses and how we look at children with challenging behaviors makes sense to me), but that hasn’t been the case.
Instead, I got beguiled by a Quaker independent school that said they had the capacity and willingness to handle my kid, who does have predictable moments of challenging behaviors that generally occur around his interactions with other children. I’ve never denied that. I am upfront about what he’s working on and where he needs support as he develops and masters those skills. We lasted there for three months before the school said it was unable to meet his needs (and it’s notable that the school also kicked out another boy of color, too), and we found ourselves back in the same place we’d been in nearly a year before.
What was important, however, was that we weren’t in the exact same place. Yes, we were out of our fourth preschool (if you’re counting), but I was different and my child was different. This time, I activated my network of support and people showed up for us, like my friend who accompanied me to a meeting about my sun at the Quaker school and, as a Quaker herself, was mystified at the school’s unwillingness to even try to teach my kid the social skills he needed. Having her be able to witness and articulate that moment was powerful. His teacher of the home preschool/day care let us return until we figured out what we wanted and needed to do. She was also clear about the difference between permissive schools and progressive ones, noting that the Quaker one was permissive and a space where my kid will most likely never do well. I appreciated her honesty. The therapists we’d worked with affirmed us and helped me give E the language for talking about leaving and next steps. No need to dwell on the past, essentially, but to, rather, get some play dates on the books so he could remain connected to his friends. A reminder that children are resilient and that he was developing key resiliency skills helped, also.
We are at a new preschool, an Afrocentric one in Boston’s Roxbury that has been around for decades. As we prepared to begin at the school, I gave his teachers as much information as they wanted to know about E, but his teacher said she preferred to get to know him first and that she would ask if she had questions. Indeed, he displayed some of those challenging behaviors, but, this time, the response was different. There has been no discussion of something being “wrong,” but, instead, has been much more around him learning how to be in a new place, learning how to get along with peers, how to understand expectations. There’s also been lots of affirming of his strengths. The school is structured; children know their limits; they are loved. E is adjusting. He has been interested in his peers and is doing some intense social work of negotiating relationships and learning how to be in community with other young children. I think he’s exhausted, lol. Indeed, being an almost-five-year-old is hard work.
I’ve hung back mostly, hovering along the periphery. I am hesitant to get involved in the school community. I know it’s this fear of perhaps: perhaps this will all go south AGAIN in the blink of an eye; perhaps the teacher is going to begin telling me about what’s wrong with my kid without any suggestions about how I can help him and support her; perhaps we’ll be told this is not the place for us. My therapist has been great about telling me to focus on today, and to be grateful for today. I am generally optimistic about my life; this current moment and this last year has tested that resolve. I’m trying. This current moment is not a year ago.
I do not know a solution other than to keep working for schools, educators, and language that is truly focused on what is best for young children in early childhood spaces. I know these spaces exist. I have a dear friend who is doing incredible work in California with all kinds of children. I know principals who have helped their staff receive the training they need to service all children. What is infuriating is that these places are not givens and that it’s through trial-and-error that a family might “luck” into one of them. For Black families and other IPOC families, the ratio of schools that are culturally responsive and effective to all the ones that aren’t is dismal, at best.
And, really, that’s why I’ve not been back to this blog for a while. The need to write about the aftermath has been overshadowed by the every day need to simply show up for my kid, to get him the supports he need, and to keep my day job. Things are marginally better, but not as much as I hoped and not as much as my kid–and all kids–deserve. It’s the better, for today, that I focus on. Today, right now, everything is okay.
Everything is okay.
We are going to be okay, and I must refuse to accept any other reality.
Dear Mom, Dad, Auntie, Grandma, family member of a Black sun:
I have to begin with this affirmation: I see you. I believe you.
As we gear up for the start of a new school year, I suspect you might feel the same familiar knots of tension beginning to twist in your stomach that I do, often coming at unexplained moments: while pushing him on the swing, while reading a book together, while chatting about his day over dinner. You’ll wonder if his new teacher will take the time to listen closely to the way he gets excited about superheroes, about building volcanoes with his friends, about waiting for a tomato to ripen before he can pick it.
You’ll wonder if his new teacher will listen to him at all.
You’ll covertly search the internet, chaining together all types of words in the search bar: whatiswrongwithmyblacksun, howtohelpmychildsurvivearacistteacher, whatdoidoknow, howdoihomeschool. You will wake up at night, run those searches in your head, check on him, cry, call your mother, tell certain friends who know your sun well that you are barely holding on, run new searches and get really interested in the presence of a higher power.
All the while, when his teachers begin to call you–daily–and report all the behaviors they are seeing that don’t conform to the school: asking questions without raising a hand, not sitting quietly during morning meetings, not sharing or taking turns, and on and on and on, and when you ask them what they are doing, and they assure you that they are “really working hard to get to know your child,” you believe them. On the rides home from school, the car turns into an inquisition and you take their side and not your sun’s when he explains that he was hungry as a reason for not listening and staying in the line, that he really wanted to play with the trains for a few more turns, that he was enjoying the running in the gym when he was told to stop, and he couldn’t quite understand why he had to drop everything at that very instant.
Looking back, you will mark this moment: when you wanted so much for him to be in that school, affiliated with Boston College and its reputation, that you took their side, and your child was wrong. Because you get star struck, a bit, thinking that these Ph.Ds in early childhood education who are supervising the teachers in its lab school will, surely, know what it means to “teach for social justice,” to have teachers who are “culturally competent.” Until, that is, you realize that they don’t.
A child is not a sacrifice.
It takes another group of Ph.D.s to tell you, to insist to you, to encourage you, that everything your sun is doing is developmentally appropriate. That there is nothing wrong with him and everything wrong with the school that promised to use its “well-developed, research-based early childhood program” to nearly destroy your child. A school that called itself a “partnership school” was simply concerned with maintaining its partnership with white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
After, 31 days after, to be exact, you replay all the ways the school wasn’t a partner at all: if a school was a partner, it wouldn’t have moved so quickly from working together to declaring that it “wasn’t a good fit.” It the school was a partner, there would be more children, faculty and staff that reflected the backgrounds of the children in the school, especially more children of African descent. If a school was a partner, it would truly embrace developmentally appropriate behavior, and evaluate its practices as such, changing them where appropriate so all children can thrive, not just ones who are able to sit quietly–as three year olds–on a mat, make multiple transitions around a building, share with others. If a school is a partner, it would not chastise children into “making good choices” and blame them when, at three, they didn’t quite understand what that would mean.
The shame that you feel will bring you to your knees. You will never cry as much as you have to this point in his young life, and you will not know what to do. You will recall the multiple times the school called you to pick him up because he could not finish the school day, the way your stomach dropped when you saw the number flash on your phone, the way you ran to your car, breathed your way through the tears so when you picked him up you could not be so angry you couldn’t think rationally. How embarrassed you felt when they rattled off a list of insurrections which, again, when you review them with your best friend who is a school administrator counters with, again, an acknowledgement of the behavior tempered with the developmental appropriateness of it all and wonderings about the teacher’s and the school’s abilities and competencies.
I imagine you’ll go through an amazingly difficult few months. You will encounter dissonance, as all the people who know your boy will be incredulous at the preschool’s verdict. Yes, he is not perfect. But, they insist, he is three.
Who kicks a kid out of preschool?
During that time, you’ll read different research, research citing the mind-blowing rates of Black boys being pushed out of preschool, about “exclusionary discipline” that begins the preschool-to-prison pipeline, that preschool teachers are implicitly biased against Black boys.
What you also begin to hear are the stories of others whose suns have also been kicked out of preschool. They whisper it to you, send you DMs, share anecdotes of parents they know, and you quickly understand that what happened with your child is not a one-off. You also understand how traumatic this experience is for children and their families.
He is one of many. He is not the problem. The school is the problem. Schools that are pushing Black boys out of preschool are the problem.
In that moment of realization, you’ll also admit that, in your belief of schools being places for all children–which you now know they are not–you have failed to protect the one thing that you promised to protect when you decided to mother this boy.
You have failed to protect his freedom.
Then, you will listen to your other friend, the one who has been with you every step of the way, who parsed the emails from the school and gave you the language to ask the probing questions, the one who held you up with encouragement when you worried about losing your job because you obsessed about missing too many days to leaving work early (you didn’t lose your job, BTW), who assured you that the tide was going to turn.
And it did, arriving in the form of a Black teacher, who, after spending one day with your sun summarized that “no one had taken the time to actually teach him what was expected,” and that she would. You will believe in second chances, and many more, saying many blessings that this tiny preschool had a middle-of-February opening.
Certainly, you will be on edge in the days and weeks after he begins at this new school, but you eventually come to believe that when she says “I won’t call you unless it’s an emergency,” she truly means it. You are able to focus at work. The changes don’t happen overnight. There will be plenty of times when your sun is unhappy and tired as he adjusts to her new way of doing things, but, as she gives you daily reports, they are always framed by what she knows he can do, what she expects him to learn, and that he is a “great leader,” “so smart,” “such a good friend.” She affirms what you have always known about your child and what you nearly allowed to be silenced by other preschools that simply did not take the time or effort to learn what you and so many others know to be true.
Even when you were on your knees, you knew that you had to do something to fight for him, and for all the others who have Black suns who are being pushed out of preschools around the country, at rates that exceed those of Black boys being pushed out of elementary schools.
The first step is telling our story, about how I nearly lost my boy to a racist school system that tried to destroy him, and that his story is not a singular one.
What happened to my sun happens to Black boys in preschool every single day.
There is such stigma and shame I experienced as I was so quick to think I was the problem. Instead, we are in a system that, if we do not intervene, will continue to push Black boys out of preschool, denying them experiences, teachers, schools, that have the potential to ground them in powerful educational beginnings.
We also need to draw on our resources: community, family, parenting groups, that are strengths-based, that create space for parents of color, that do not bat an eye at the rough play Black boys need. That love all of us, from the terrified parts of us to the brimming-with-joy parts of us. Many schools are not those places, but with some searching and, if necessary, willingness to build those spaces (podcast about my work doing that is here), we can give ourselves and our suns the nurturing we need, while also learning about schools and other educational school systems that are actively seeking to destroy Black boys and as we work to dismantle those systems. It is also in these spaces where we can share different stories and resources that help us find affirming places that will love our boys–and their families–in the ways we know they need.
I say to you what I wish I had been able to say to myself nearly a year ago, when we were so excited to begin a new school year, quickly having those desires turn to doubt, shame, anger and worry, and offer some final understandings:
Work really hard to find places that will nurture and love your Black sun. Those spaces are increasingly harder to find, but, they are out there.
Be willing to expand your ideas of preschool, realizing that a small, in-home preschool led by a Black teacher might be the optimal place for your child to thrive. When you go to visit it the first time, don’t try to compare this place to what you think preschools “should” be. This is the place you need, in more ways than you will ever know, and you’ll be grateful when you eventually make the decision to matriculate there (and that she has a space).
Lean on the people who will hold you up, who have known your child through all stages of his life (and who know all of his growing edges and yours, too), who can hold up a mirror to you and can remind you what is developmentally appropriate (and nearly everything is developmentally appropriate, even if a school doesn’t want to admit that).
Call out racism and bias in preschool and early childhood education (use the resources listed above to make your case). Ask for expulsion data, disaggregated by race and gender and use it to ask probing questions of a school. If there is already a pattern of expulsion for Black boys, your child will be no different. Sorry, he just won’t. You are not the problem, and neither is your sun. Have those people who are holding you up use their own power and experiences to call out the schools and other institutions who, unless we start speaking up, get away with pushing Black boys out of preschool.
Get yourself a really good therapist. They help. Another helpful resource is something like the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy program offered by the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston that will affirm developmental appropriateness and also help your parenting skills in phenomenal ways.
Listen to this song on repeat. “When you’re young gifted and black, your soul’s intact.”
He is your most precious gift. Don’t let anyone let you believe otherwise. And if a teacher or school doesn’t believe that, well, then, they don’t deserve him, and they don’t deserve you.
I’m sending you so much hope and love that this school year will be different, for my sun, and for yours.
A poem, for the hard times and the wonderful times I know are ahead of us.
’Tis a noble gift to be brown, all brown, Like the strongest things that make Up this earth, Like the mountains grave and grand, Even like the very land, Even like the trunks of trees— Even oaks, to be like these! God builds his strength in bronze.
To be brown like thrush and lark! Like the subtle wren so dark! Nay, the king of beasts wears brown; Eagles are of this same hue. I thank God, then, I am brown. Brown has mighty things to do.
It’s been a year, for sure. Here, I offer a few quick updates with more to come and a word about a podcast I’m on via the amazing Trina of Parenting for Liberation (link at the bottom):
We left our beloved day care after E aged out. From there, we made a brief stop at a play-based preschool where E struggled to figure out social interactions with others. He got pulled out a lot to “take breaks.” I inquired about patterns and learned that he was the only Black boy that was being held out so frequently. The clincher came when E told me that other children were calling him “bad,” and my fear of labeling and punitive measures compelled us to move into a “more-structured school.” There, a Catholic School, the pendulum swung all the way to the other side and E lasted about a month before we were asked to leave. There, he was one of two Black boys in his class. He began mid-year and was expected to have made all necessary transitions by the second week of school. It was an impossible situation and left us demoralized and hurt. Believe it, too, when parents talk about the preschool to prison pipeline. It exists. It exists. It exists.
Fortunately, we’ve bounced back because we’ve found a fantastic small, in-home preschool/daycare run by the most amazing Black teacher. I swear. She’s magic: firm, high expectations, loving. E has gotten it right together. His new teacher’s theories include that people simply didn’t care enough to attend to the bad habits that he’d acquired. She’s nipped them in the bud and he’s blossoming, and I feel like I can catch my breath before we begin the next leg of the journey. I’ll write more about the preschool debacle once I’ve gotten a bit more distance from it.
In these situations, I’ve learned that I have to speak up, show up, and stand up for my kid. I have learned, too, that I’m not imagining things and that anti-Blackness and White Supremacy are everywhere, particularly in the classrooms of preschools.
I’ve pulled my supporters even more tightly around us. One of the proudest accomplishments that’s come out of this is the founding of a parenting group called Free, Whole and Happy Black Boys, modeled on the amazing Parenting for Liberation. As a treat, I’m going to leave you with a link to the latest podcast, featuring me. Please give it a listen (it’s about 30 mins., the perfect amount of time to get you nearly across the city if you’re living in the Bean). I discuss how the group came to be. If you’re in Boston raising a Black sun, join us! We definitely cannot do this work alone.
I try to cook dinner three times a week. Because I have a little that may or may not have any patience for me to cook that dinner, I am constantly on the hunt for recipes that are fast and easy. I try to keep a bullet journal page for dishes that fit that bill and ones that I simply love and want to make again (because I will usually make something once and then not make it again. I think a lot of the joy of cooking comes from trying it once and moving on).
Tonight, I had decided to make Pan-Fried Chicken with Asparagus and Lemon from Dinner: A Love Story. This is one blog that has consistently delivered fast, easy, and delicious food. I find myself starting at DALS when I am beginning my meal planning because I know that if I pick three recipes to make for the following week (I usually do all my planning and shopping on the weekends for the week ahead), I’ll most likely make them.
What is also notable is that I’ll usually enjoy making them. On a weeknight. Whoa.
E certainly pushed me to the limit tonight. Here’s a snippet of our “conversation” that occurred just as I was putting the asparagus on.
E: MOMMY, I want a hug!
Me: Okay. Come here. I’d love to hug you.
E: NOOOO! I don’t want a hug!
Repeat at least fifty times.
I have ceased to let these moments get to me. Instead, I started laughing and turned up my Pandora station: 90s pop music. He was perplexed when I started singing Hanson’s “Mmmbop” at the top of my lungs in our tiny kitchen while I cooked the chicken. And as we danced the toddler tango of hugs/no hugs, I kept cooking. Because I knew I really wanted to have some asparagus and chicken and a decent pan sauce.
While I cooked, I realized that my ability not to take myself so seriously was probably the reason dinner wasn’t a total fail (huge moment of growth!!). I sat E in a chair close enough to me–but far enough out of reach of the stove–and called him my “cooking assistant.” I gave him a job, and I kept singing.
“Are you cooking my dinner, Mommy?”
Turning point. I told him I was and he finally allowed me to sweep him up into a hug before putting him down to sit at his table.
Karla Hall, a chef I admire (and a host of The Chew) said if you’re in a bad mood and you’re about to make dinner, the only thing you should make is a reservation.
I could have been in a bad mood tonight, could have decided to order delivery, or eat leftovers or pull something out of the fridge and call it small plates. I’ve done all of these things. Survival. No judgement.
Tonight, though, I wanted to cook because I wanted to eat with my child, and I wanted us to eat something I enjoyed cooking. And after the minor moment of toddler outrage, we managed to sit down together and enjoy a meal, and E even ate some asparagus.
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.
I love the Modern Mrs. Darcy for several reasons: great book recommendations, relevant lifestyle tips, and some interesting thinking about habit formation. A recent post was about tracking what you’re reading. She summarizes how a reader uses a Line-A-Day journal to record what she is reading every day.
At one point in my life–and I can’t quite pinpoint when that was, but I think it was in junior high–I wrote down every book I finished. Nope. It was definitely earlier because I just had a flashback of a spiral-bound notebook and some loopy handwriting. That was more like fourth or fifth grade. But yes, every single book. Then, I either lost interest or lost the notebook and my record keeping became much less intentional and much more haphazard. The older I get, the more I realize that my memory is not as great as it once was (was it ever as good as I imagined it?) and I’d really like to remember books that mattered to me. I write them down in a bullet journal, but there’s something about this MMD suggestion that works for me.
I started today. I’m currently reading My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. I was late to this party–hasn’t everyone read these books? But I was poking around in our local library a few weeks ago and the first book in the series was there. I’ve postponed reading it for this long because I could never find the first book. Until now. Problem is, the book is now overdue and I can’t renew it so I’m reading as fast as I can and hoping the fines don’t accrue too much.
I wanted, also, to have some sort of reminder of the books E and I read together. We read a LOT. Under my own currently reading daily line, I wrote his: The Tales of Peter Rabbit. We have a fairy bookmother who sends us books in the mail. They seem to arrive just in the nick of time. Completely unexpected and always perfect. This is her latest gift and E is tickled pink with the rabbit stories.
A line for him, a line for me as we remember the books that make our reading lives.
This post is part of the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, who have created a space for writers and teachers of writers to come together. To learn more about this challenge, click here.