This Week on Teacher Talk…..
It’s Been thirty Years
Thirty years ago this month, Nelson Mandela, president of South Africa and world-famous, anti-racist revolutionary, visited our very own Madison Park Vocational Technical High School in Boston. He had only just been released from prison in South Africa, where he had been held for 27 years for opposing the racist segregation policy of the South African government known as apartheid.
It was at that visit on June 23, 1990 to Madison Park when Nelson Mandela made a speech that contained his most often quoted words.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Students, faculty, administration, parents, along with both local and national politicians who came to see a man, who in August of 1962 was arrested and charged with the crime of inciting workers’ strikes and traveling outside the country without the government’s permission (aka being Black) but who persevered as a living symbol of anti-racism.
In 1990, Mr. Mandela had been behind bars as a political prisoner for longer than I had been alive. And even now, seven years after his death, he is still seen as the embodiment of principled sacrifice, staunch integrity, civil-disobedience and triumph of the human spirit over injustice. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela was a human example of how one person can inspire change in a society to improve the quality of life for its citizens. He represented the American ideals of freedom, justice and equality more than many American Leaders did then and do now, perhaps with a few notable exceptions then, like then Massachusetts State Senator Mel King and then US Senator Edward Kennedy and now, like US Representative, Ayanna Pressley and US Senator, Elizabeth Warren.
That day, thirty years ago, Mandela said, “When one day our history is rewritten, the pioneering and leading role of Massachusetts will stand out like a shining diamond. It was you who supported us when very few knew of our existence, our trials and tribulations.” He was referring to the state of Massachusetts’s and the city of Boston’s divestment from companies that did business with the South African government. He then turned to the students of Madison Park that day and said: “If there is any appeal I could make it is that to the young people of Boston, and indeed to the young people of the United States, must take it upon themselves to ensure that they receive the highest education possible.” Have we answered Mandela’s appeal? Has history shown us to be pioneers leading the way against racism? We have had three decades to do so.
According to Massachusetts state department of education data, only 24% of Black elementary and middle school children in Boston score above grade-level on MCAS, compared to 63% of white children. And, 40% of Black and Hispanic 10th graders in the state fall in the “needs improvement” and “failing” categories for math, compared to only 15% of Whites.
Although the Black/White achievement gap for college completion is smaller in Massachusetts than in most other states (below 15%) and the four year completion rate for Black students is above the national average and in Massachusetts, a 2017 report from The Center for Civil Rights Remedies, shows that Black students in Massachusetts public schools are three times more likely to miss school due to being suspended than white students. And, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education’s website, only 7.5% of students accepted to the elite public “exam school,” Boston Latin, are Black, while Black students make up over 30% of the Boston Public Schools student population.
Last week, eighth grade English teacher, Zakia Jarrett, at the Pierce Middle School in Milton, was put on administrative leave pending an investigation, after discussing racial bias during a virtual class. Her administrative leave was lifted, only after a group of parents in the district and the Milton Teachers Association petitioned the superintendent.
In the three decades since his visit to Madison Park, more than the amount of time he spent in prison in his stand against racism, what have we done to combat racism here in Massachusetts? And, where are we in 2020 if teachers can’t talk about racism in America with their students without being suspended?
Last week on Teacher Talk, we scratched the surface just deeply enough to see that this tumor isn’t merely malignant, it has metastasized. Like any disease, racism is a “disorder of structure.” It is disruptive to our healthy function as a nation and to each of us as individuals.
It has replicated, adapted, mutated, and every American is infected with it. Some of us think we don’t have it in us, but that’s because we are or think we are asymptomatic. But, like any disease, it is born from infection. And, to kill it, we must understand what causes this infection, how it is transmitted and how it dies before it kills any more of us. We have been treating only the symptoms of this disease for far too long. Are we going to let this bug kill us? It is looking that way.
So, I say, let’s go to school, shall we? If Nelson Mandela is right and Education is the most powerful weapon we have to change the world. Let’s get busy, shall we? I want to know what racism is. I want to know where it comes from. I want to know why it exists. I want to know what it does to us. I want to explore its anatomy, it’s structure, its history, its language, who benefits from racism and who is harmed by it?
I want to know about its economics, the biology of it, the mythology of it, the psychology of it, the linguistics of it, its legislative and policy implications and its politics.
I want to gaze into its many faces, until I can look myself in the mirror and no longer see any trace of racism, because our students deserve to have role models, so that they can see that — at the very least — we are trying.
Otherwise, they may give up on changing the world, might give up on the big three, on justice, on freedom and on equality. Today’s children are America’s last hope. If they give up, where will America be?
TEACHER TALK is a LIVE one hour podcast about K-12 teaching in the 21st Century. https://open.spotify.com/show/56Nh1iK2GRqbCrHB7S0B7P