My seventh grade year was the most transformative year of my pre-college life. So much was going on. My parents forced me to go a new school that I did not want to attend because they thought it would be better for me (they were right). My inner city neighborhood was dealing with serious gang and drug related violence during what has affectionately been labeled as the “Crack Epidemic.” Lastly, my father spent most of my seventh grade year in a coma in Zambia after an assassination attempt went awry. I did not know what to expect from my new school, but I was nervous because Boston Latin School was the oldest public school in the country and even older than Harvard. Walking into homeroom though I quickly learned that academics were going to be the least of my problems.
I’ll never forget the day I walked into class proudly wearing my African cowrie shell necklace. I felt like I wanted to start expressing myself in a way that reflected a bit of pride in my culture. As I sat down in the back of the class (I didn’t want to draw too much attention to me), I thought I could just blend in with the class. Michael (name changed to protect the guilty), however, had a different idea. The conversation went something like this:
Michael: “Yo, what’s that shit you’re wearing around your neck?”
Me: “Cowrie shells.”
Michael: “That’s whack.”
I do not know what I said after that, but before I knew it, Michael felt the need to get up out of his front row seat, walk four rows to the back of the room and slap me twice in the face and went back to his seat. No one said or did a thing. I was left thinking: “Here we go again.” In my earlier grades, I was picked on and had many insults hurled my way due to my African ancestry but it had never gotten physical until this moment. I found myself thinking, “Why me?” “Why now?” as I began to reflect on my past life as a bullied student, I wondered what would happen if my bullies took the time to learn anything about me. I wish they knew that:
1) I would actually have been a good friend to them if they needed a shoulder to lean on;
2) I also come from a challenging situation in a drug and crime infested neighborhood so school doesn’t have to be another warzone for us;
3) My difference in my name and culture should make them want to learn more about me rather than hate me; and that
4) I know deep down inside they have a fear of being accepted just like I did so why can’t we be friends instead of enemies?
Dealing with these issues at a school I didn’t want to be in plus having my father gone and not knowing whether he was going to live or die after his head was bashed in with a crowbar led me to check out. In some vain attempt to be cool, I just stopped doing work. By the end of the year, I had over twenty failing grades on my report card and ended up repeating my seventh grade year. In retrospect, I guess I was lucky compared to other victims of bullying. While I had no friends or staff to advocate for me in the seventh grade, I did have three older brothers, one of whom ensured that no one would ever put their hands on me again. Had it not been for him, I probably would have done some serious hurt to myself or to my bullies, as it was very easy to get access to guns in my neighborhood. By the time I became a senior, the only bullying or intimidation I had to deal with came in the form of some white students wearing white hoods to school when I ran for Class President but that is a story for another day.
We need to do more work with our youth to hear them out and I am referring to the bullied and the bully as well. As a youth motivational speaker, I’ve seen this everywhere i have visited. Those of us who are blessed with the opportunity to be in front of our students on a daily basis need to open our eyes more and get the professional development where it’s needed in order to know when bullied students are checking out or when bullies are beginning to emerge in our school hallways. In retrospect, not one teacher picked up on any problems I was having and just send me to the office or detention if they thought I was “acting up.”Parents must be less distracted by anything that takes away their ability to be present and inquisitive in the lives of their children so that they may understand fully what their children are going through whether they’re children are the bullied or the bully. We may not be able to stop every situation, but we can make a serious dent in the armor of our bullying culture if we truly had a desire and the opportunity to really engage our students and show that we care about their feelings. I know this would have worked for me during my first seven years of my educational experience. In this day and age, however, our children don’t have that kind of time. They need us. They need YOU…now.