By George E. Curry
I recently attended my grandson Austin Ragland’s graduation from pre-school in Buford, Ga. Yes, you read correctly – pre-school. It’s never too soon to begin celebrating academic achievement, as his graduation from pre-school attests. So, PaPa was excited about going to Austin’s graduation ceremony and seeing him don a cap and gown for the first time to receive his “diploma.”
In addition to wanting to support every significant event in Austin’s life, PaPa realizes, to borrow a phrase from Jesse Jackson, that he has more yesterdays than tomorrows. I don’t know how many such celebrations I’ll be around for, so the sooner we begin celebrating, the better.
At 5 years old, Austin is extremely smart. He read more books than anyone else in his age-group and thanks to his parents, learning is fun to him. He frequently wants to practice his site words, even on weekends, without being asked and loves reading to Grammy.
I was expecting to hear some reference to Austin’s quickly developing intellect at his graduation, but was I ever disappointed. Miffed is a more accurate description. Naw, I was pissed.
When it was Austin’s turn to receive his diploma, he had been instructed to run to the front of the room, which he did.
“Austin Ragland – as you can see, he’s our best boy runner,” the presiding teacher said. “He’s really fast. Give me a hug.”
I said beneath my breath, “He does more than run.” And the more I thought about it, the angrier I became.
Let’s be clear: Austin’s pre-school has done a wonderful job providing him with a firm educational foundation. I believe his teachers are good-hearted, caring individuals who have Austin’s best interests at heart. Still, I find it troubling that of all the things they could have said about Austin, they chose to focus on his speed.
To be fair, they did the same things to some of Austin’s White classmates – one boy was praised for his athletic skills. So, I don’t view it as conscious racism. But I don’t know Austin’s White classmates, I know him. And I know how critical it is to highlight brain over brawn.
Fortunately, Austin is a good athlete – he plays basketball and soccer – and he’s an excellent student. But his parents and grandparents want him to know that what he does academically is far more important than what he does on the basketball court or soccer field. In my grandson’s case, he will definitely get that reinforcement from his family. But I fear some of his friends might not receive the message. And that’s why it’s so important that educators be aware of the messages they are consciously and unconsciously transmitting to young Black boys in particular.
As education consultant and prolific author Jawanza Kunjufu observes, “Visit a kindergarten class and observe Black boys in action. They’re eager, they sit in the front, they’re on task. They love learning.”
But by the time they are in the 9th grade, they have absorbed a different message, one where academics are not valued as much as they should be.
Kunjufu explained, “Boys don’t drop out in the 12th grade. They physically drop out in the ninth grade, but they emotionally and academically drop out in the fourth grade.”
A contributing factor, according to Kunjufu, is the composition of the teaching force.
“Can you imagine African Americans may be the only group expecting someone else to educate their children?” he wrote. “White female teachers constitute 83 percent of the U.S. elementary teaching force. African American students are 17 percent of public school students nationwide, but represent only 6 percent of the teachers.
“Unfortunately, African American males constitute only 1 percent of the teaching population. There are schools without one African American male academic teacher. They are employed as custodians, security guards, and P.E. teachers. Often schools will hire an African American male to be assistant principal which translates into being in charge of all male behavioral problems.”
Make no mistake about it, Black girls, who are suspended or expelled from school at higher rates than White girls, also deserve special attention and should not be ignored in the rush to create new programs and opportunities for Black boys and men. Still, visit any college campus and you’ll notice the severe underrepresentation of Black males.
After the graduation ceremony, one of the administrators told Grammy that Austin will be attending a challenging kindergarten in the fall and volunteered, “He’ll probably be placed in the gifted class.”
To me, sharing that with the audience would have been much better than merely proclaiming that he was the fastest student in the class. He was also one of the smartest and that should not have been overlooked.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA) and BlackPressUSA.com. He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook. See previous columns at http://www.georgecurry.com/columns.