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.
The Bronze Legacy (To a Brown Boy)
’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.