“Dear James: I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. Like him, you are tough, dark, vulnerable, moody—with a very definite tendency to sound truculent because you want no one to think you are soft…”
“Good Morning, gentlemen. How was our weekend?”
I always greet my mentees with terms such as, ‘gentlemen’, ‘brotha’s’, or ‘Kings’ to affirm their beauty and brilliance. When I ask, ‘how was our weekend?’, I am seeking to center the collective identity we carry. Any success is ‘our’ success, any failure is thus, ‘our’ failure. This collective identity, or sense of belonging, is something I have been creating for years in our Black male affinity mentorship.
This day I wanted to check in on our collective mental capacity, “How is our minds?” is what I began with, where I received the “I’m straight”, “solid”, and “coo”. But one answer stood out to me, “I’m keeping it a buck, all of this isn’t coo. I’m not doing well, Mr. Jackson. This past weekend was heavy…”
I knew exactly what he was referring to. There was a loss in our Brotherhood. A former member of our mentorship was shot and killed over the weekend. I asked our freshman to hang tight, because we would not be focusing on them this morning. But I wanted them to feel what we were going to be experiencing, collective love and grief.
“Freshman, I love you. Today, I am holding space for the seniors. We need to grieve our loss. See, we lost one of our Brothers in mentorship, and we have to hurt today. Let’s check back in tomorrow, where we will share story.”, ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘share story’, all representing healthy approaches to work through pain, conflict, and build healthy community. In this space, many shared their fear of being Black, living in the community, and not knowing when their time might be.
“Man, I am honestly at a loss of words, I am hurting right now being in this space to be honest with you. How are y'all feeling?” I asked. “I don’t know, it hurts man. I really don’t know what to say. I was just with him last week.” One expressed. “You know, he was a real one. He was turning things around Mr. Jackson, working and trying to get things together,” another replied. “I know. I know. Check this though. Let’s hurt today, and let’s continue to share this hurt. Just know I love you all, and I am blessed to be here with you. Let’s plan how we will honor him,” I expressed. We shared our hurt, I checked in more personally with them, offering other resources for them that can help them grieve through this. But what they wanted was to be vulnerable, to be sad, to be human.
“When we say ‘a boy needs a father’, we mean ‘a boy needs someone to teach him how to be a patriarch.’ Teach him to suppress, teach him to be unfeeling, teach him not to cope, teach him to explode. All in the name maintaining the myth”
—Mychal Denzel Smith
When I became Assistant Principal at Nathan Hale High School in 2016, I developed a deep bond with our Black students, and primarily our Black boys. As AP, many of my responsibilities surrounded discipline and supervision, so early on, I observed and participated in the disproportionate discipline of our Black students. I took this personally. As a Black leader, I questioned why we were not developing deep relationships, bonds, and connections with our Black students. Since they were entering and exiting my office at such a high rate, I had an opportunity to meet their families, learn about their joys, their fears, what excites them, and even learn about their dreams. I then observed that disproportionate discipline was impacting African-American students all throughout our district, region, state, and nation, impacting their sense of belonging, sense of self, and sense of academic identity. This hurt me, and I needed to do something about it.
While building bonds with our Black students in my office, I realized the methods for ‘so called’ safe schools is very unsafe for our African-American students, who are adultified and expected early on to abide by rules, and oftentimes put in positions to be forced to apologize to those who harmed them in order to access learning, after much learning has been lost. One gross example of this is upon re-entry from suspension, when students, primarily Black students, have to sign behavior contracts as a strategy for intervention, and ‘so called’ restoration, when, in fact, we have effectively created an unsafe environment for them to operate, by first removing them from the learning environment, and then mandating their conduct for how they should re-enter. When they return, they have lost learning, and have to behave in a way that is not conducive to their way of being, which guarantees that they will have lost their sense of belonging, academic identity, and feeling of connection to any meaningful relationship in school. I digressed.
I took it personal that we would allow this all to occur. I noticed that others took it personal as well, just differently. I observed that many Black students are pushed out of the school, with zero tolerance hallway policies, zero tolerance behaviors in between classes, zero tolerance classroom policies, all disguised as school safety. This law and order style forces students, and primarily Black students further out, where they tend to drop out of school, and no longer exist as the school problem. This pathway to prison is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I noticed that many of my freshman and sophomores were headed in that direction, and I needed to intervene. Although the juniors were no longer getting in trouble with behavior, as they had been pushed so far out of the system that they no longer cared to engage in school, they would often skip, or leave school when they knew they might face trouble. Seniors, well, if they made it that far, they were often pushed out. In my supervisory role, I found our most brilliant minds on the fringes.
“One of the gravest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness. Functionally, oppression is domesticating. To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it…”
This senior group has been with me for three years. All of them, at one point or another, had a series of run-ins with me, and I bonded with them and their families through these run-ins. Family meetings, re-entry conferences, or re-engagement meetings all served as opportunities to connect. But this wasn’t enough. I became so fed up with seeing them in my office and losing learning that I created a mentorship and brought all of them in. Our school has a mentorship period, so I made sure to prioritize creating a mentorship period for myself, and place the lowest academic performing, highest disciplined, and lowest attending students at Nathan Hale in my mentorship. The original goal was to create a space to focus on restoration, and community, but it became much more than that. They began making demands for how their learning should be, what they expect from their teachers, how they felt in the school, why they skipped class, and what pressures in life they experienced. In one distinct example, one student, who has straight A’s, with a disciplinary history, expressed to me, “I skip US history because it does not celebrate my Eritrean identity. I don’t care for that credit”, this pushed me to shift my approach to teaching and learning, by really focusing on how we are centering our student voice in our decision-making. Primarily, how are we centering our Black student voice in our decision making?
Certain days, we shut everything down to check in on feelings around music, sports, politics, work, finance, with our check-ins always surrounding feelings, “How are y'all doing? But really, how are you doing, King?”, I would check in during hallway walks, I would see them during classroom observations, give them a pound, and check in what they are learning, how they are pushing their learning, and what questions they were asking their teachers.
“Identity work for Black students must be done in critique of, and alongside efforts to change, structural practices that perpetuate racist violence and oppression…This foundational premise—that the problem does not reside in the Black students or with their decisions—must be made with unrelenting clarity, especially when the world so deafeningly says otherwise…”
—Jarvis R. Givens and Na’ilah Suad Nasir
As principal, I decided to keep my mentorship, but focus primarily on this group of seniors, and opening up a group of freshmen. Since our coronavirus pandemic began, we have been in virtual learning, so I have to prioritize time to share love, care, and compassion in a remote setting. This was pretty simple to do with my group of seniors, and a bit challenging with the Freshman. In connecting with the Freshman, I reached out to our feeder Middle Schools and asked for a list for the highest referred and lowest academically performing Black boys that were enrolled in Nathan Hale High School. I then called their parents and guardians, asked about their learning experience, and then shared that I have a mentorship with all Black boys focused on identity development, empowerment, and creating a sense of belonging and self. All the families shared worry about entering High School online, fears and concerns about how they had been treated in the past, and then excitement knowing they had a safe space to begin each day.
Every day I open our mentorship up with, “Watch your mind, body, and spirit. Make sure to get some fresh air. Spend time with your family,” and every day I leave with, “We gotta guard our minds, guard our bodies, and guard our spirits. I love you. Peace kings” honoring our collective identity in this space.
Since our seniors have developed agency, leadership, and have a strong sense of their own identity, I have focused on them mentoring our freshman, primarily teaching our seniors to shepherd the freshman, as I shepherd them.
As an example, when teaching about stepping into one’s own identity and holding space, I sometimes open up with, “what’s the word, King”, to my seniors, where they drop knowledge to the freshman about learning, the system, school, and how to navigate it. As the freshmen watch me lead the seniors, they are happy and feel safe being led by the seniors. “Man, yall brothas need to make sure you are in class, because then you can come back and let them know what isn’t working for you. If you aren’t in class, you can't let them know what doesn’t work for you”, a gem by one of my seniors.
“Man, I learned a little later. Don’t waste your time though,” a senior lets the one of the freshmen know. “What should we do if we don’t like how we are being responded to in class?” a freshman asks. “Have you talked to the teacher about this?” a senior responds. “Nah, I haven’t. Shouldn’t they know?” the freshman replies. “Yea, but if you don’t let them know, they will treat you any way. You gotta let them know what works for you fam,” the senior replies.
From probabilities to possibilities
Growing up, I was raised to be aware of my probabilities. The probability that I, as a Black man, would be shot and killed, or the probability that I, a Black man would end up in jail, all before reaching adulthood. However, in this mentorship, I take a different stance. I have the opportunity to cast a whole new vision for our next generation. I am committed to teaching our Black youth to be excited about their possibilities.