Reflecting On The Past, Looking To The Future
To kick off Black History Month, corps member Jayde Encalade (Houston '16) reflects on the importance of affirming the identity of her black male students and her hopes for their future.
Eight years ago, I was in the 10th grade and I had an AP American history teacher who changed the way I viewed history and my place in it
For the first time in my formal education, I was consistently exposed to the historical achievements of people who looked like me. I read W.E.B. DuBois, The Soul of Black Folks and The Autobiography of Malcolm X that year. I learned about the achievements of Ida B. Wells and Shirley Chisolm and their contributions to the world. And in that same year I witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th President.
For the first time in my life, my blackness was affirmed at home, at school, and in the highest position of the largest world power; the White House. In that moment I really did believe that anything was possible and that the color of my skin could not hold me back. There was something about learning, knowing, and seeing black people at their best that invigorated and inspired me to be the best version of myself.
When I accepted my placement as a Teach For America corps member, I had no idea that decision would lead me to KIPP Polaris Academy for Boys. I was going to be a social studies teacher, teaching 5th grade boys about American history. I was scared and nervous at first; questioning how to teach American history authentically, but also in a way that affirmed the cultural identities of the students in my classroom. On the walls, papers, and even students’ jackets at Polaris there is a quote by Frederick Douglas that states “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” So I went to work, attempting to do what the quote said, but the reality of teaching all boys was very different from the vision I had in my mind.
Like most first-year teachers, my early days in the classroom were filled with classroom management struggles and constant questions of whether I was doing enough. The perceptions some hold of black boys can be hard to overcome and while the world may see my boys one way, what I see every day is very different. From my very first day in the classroom I was hooked; drawn in by the magnetic personalities, the over-the-top characters, and the endless curiosity of my boys.
As a teacher, I thought I would be the only person setting high expectations in my classroom. But as trust was built between me and my boys, so were their expectations of me. Expectations that I think are magnified because in me my boys don’t just see a teacher, they see someone who looks like them, who came from where they came from, and who has similar experiences as them. As their teacher they expect me to know the answer to their questions, to tell it to them like it is, and to never shy away from the muddier parts of history. They expect me to get it when others don’t and they expect me to have their back.
As a teacher, I have been challenged to teach my boys the history of country that has oppressed people who look like them for all of its history and ignored the significant contributions that shapes the identity of Americans. In our classroom we learned about the Boston Massacre and even though he wasn’t mentioned in our textbook, we spent the time to learn about Crispus Attucks, the first person (who was black) killed while defending America’s rights and freedoms. We rapped about the Constitution, keenly aware of the fact that no one in our classroom would have benefited from the rights described at the time of its writing. When we discuss the importance of our nation’s symbols like the White House, I make sure that my boys know it was slaves, people who looked like us, that built it.
Some days are better than others. There are times where we can go days learning about the actions of white people without there once being any mention of the contributions that people of color were making at the same time. But then there are also days where our place in history is recognized. We get to spend time debating and discussing current events and issues relevant to our lives even though the people in power in our country often see things much differently than we do. We engage in history, current events and in truly becoming the type of informed citizens our Founding Fathers imagined when they set about building this country, even though we were considered property and not people at the time.
Eight years from now, my boys will be freshman in college. When they look back at this time in their lives and in the history of our country, I hope they don’t focus on the hate and divisiveness that has infected our country. Instead, I hope they see a path for themselves to walk down in pursuit of a life where they are valued, loved, and respected despite the color of their skin. We are living in a moment of time where action is our only option. We cannot sit idle as history happens to us. We must continue to be active participants in making this country a place where we can all enjoy the carefully crafted rights and liberties given to ALL Americans by our Founding Fathers.
As children of the digital age, my boys are able to know, see, and connect with information and people at the click of button. This Black History Month while I reflect on the past, I will also look to the future. A future that I hope will present endless opportunities and possibilities for my black and brown boys from North Forest. More than learning the history of our country, I want my boys to leave 5th grade social studies knowing they are capable of making history and making America a country where we ALL have access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We ARE building strong boys at KIPP Polaris Academy for Boys. What are you doing?