How my experience as a Black man working with children was tainted by racism
Black children need to see us. They need to go to school and hear the history from our mouths.
Editor’s Note: This month at BYP, we will be exploring Education & Schooling, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics. What are the implications of charter and private schools in communities of color? How do we counteract anti-Black textbooks and teachers in our childrens’ education? How did you heal from bullying or other school-based trauma? What tactics are most effective in deconstructing the school to prison pipeline? What role do alternative schooling methods play in Black liberation?
by Andrew Keahey
My mother has always been insistent in her belief that I would make an amazing teacher. I like interacting with people, and I enjoy the look on someone’s face when they finally understand something that they didn’t understand before, so it does seem like something that I could be successful at. The only real hiccup in that plan was the fact that school and I never quite got along.
Homework and essays were not part of my “enjoy life” plan when I was younger, so I let my various assignments and my GPA fall by the wayside. I almost didn’t graduate high school at all, but a lot of my teachers let some things slide in the end, and I was able to walk across that stage and out of those doors. A friend of mine even fudged my community service requirements on the condition that I do the actual volunteering later on. For real, this time.
I wasn’t going to college, that was for sure. I was staying right where I was, and giving myself time to figure out exactly what I was going to do. Everyone around me was off to new and exciting places, and even though I felt left out and a little bit jealous, I was making the best of my situation. I ended up doing my volunteer work at the after school care program at the local elementary school. A friend of mine was the director of the program, and needed the extra help, so I signed right up.
It was the best position I could have ever hoped for. At the beginning, I was just doing it because I’d made a promise, and because volunteering is something we should all endeavor to do anyway, but I found myself really excited for the work itself. The kids were incredible! They had boundless energy, shining little personalities, and each was an absolute wealth of useless facts and knowledge. As a bottomless pit of useless knowledge myself, I found that to be very endearing.
They would just run right up to me and say things like, “Did you know humans can’t lick their elbow?” And then they’d try. It was fantastic. Before that job, I hadn’t ever really been in a situation like that. I’d never been surrounded by twenty little people, constantly running and screaming and getting into fights. It was its own little society that I was partially in charge of between 2:45 and 6:00 PM Monday through Friday, and it taught me a lot about people and how we interact. I finally wanted to be a teacher. I knew it right then and there. I finished my volunteer hours, and kept coming back until they finally hired me on properly.
Now, I’m not typically what you think of when you think “child care professional.” I had colorful dreadlocks at the time, I wore band tees and baggy pants, and I of course was Black man, which isn’t something you see a lot of in education. The percentage of teachers who are Black males is in the single digits, and despite research showing that our presence in education spaces is wildly important and needed, we are still hard to find.
The kids didn’t care what the hell I was or what I looked like. They just liked that I brought in the best snacks, did science experiments with them, and chased them around the playground. I taught them how to play blackjack, and together we learned how to say childish, infantile phrases in sign language. That was all that mattered to them.
I’m not a teacher today. That’s not where this story leads. When I left that job, I didn’t end up taking another like it, and I never went back to school to pursue anything in the realm of education. The small town I grew up in made sure of that. When I try to imagine myself as a teacher, all I can see is how those white people reacted to my presence near their children, and I never want to feel those eyes on me again.
The first time I realized that I was making waves, it was when my boss relayed a message from the principal of the school. Someone had complained that I was “playing too closely with the children.” Now, my boss thought this was bullshit and presented it to me as such, but it brought up a lot of feelings in me. I went back through my days, desperate to try and find whatever I had done to earn this person’s ire, but nothing came to mind. The closest I had physically been was pushing kids on the swings. That was all. I had seen my boss pushing the kids on the swings before, and as a white woman, no one seemed to have an issue with her doing it. Only me.
I tried not to think about it, but from time to time, there would be another concerned parent with no specific complaints. I was there, existing near children, and that was enough for them. But I kept my head up! I still loved the job, and I really liked the people I worked with, so it was still very much worth doing for me. They never told me who it was that was making the complaints, and the principal never seemed to want to tell me about these complaints herself, so I always heard them through a game of telephone.
I treated all the parents extra nicely, because at the time, I thought it was something that I was doing. Clearly I was playing incorrectly and needed to adjust my behaviors, so I stopped pushing them on the swings if I could help it. My boss told me that wasn’t the answer. She said it was just how people react when they see a man playing with the kids. It didn’t make me feel better.
I finally began to fully understand what exactly was going on one fall after I’d been working there for a year or so. I walked into the school on a chilly fall day, and made my way to the gymnasium, which is where we’d set up everything for the program. I unfolded the lunch tables, set out the snacks, signed all the kids in as they filed inside. Soon, we’d all moved outside and everyone was out running on the playground. It was a standard day, no different than any other, so I can’t be sure if it was how I looked on this day, or if it had been something that they’d been thinking about for a while, but the principal herself came and spoke to me. Truly this was a special occasion.
“Parents have expressed some concerns,” she said in her best “I absolve myself of all responsibility” voice. “They’ve said that you appear threatening. From now on, if you could enter the building through the back, I think that would work better.”
Many years earlier, I’d learned about segregation in the very school I was then standing in and now they were telling me that I couldn’t use the actual entrance to the building. I hadn’t been wearing anything offensive or controversial on school property. It was simply autumn, and I would wear a hoodie to keep warm like any other person. I learned later that it was the hoodie and the fact that I was wearing headphones that had set off the alarms in their white heads. After all, I could have been a gangbanger. It was small town Ohio! Just because there wasn’t a gang there yet didn’t mean we weren’t due for one!
That was the moment. That was when I didn’t want to teach anymore. I know that’s probably a low threshold, and some might say that if I were to give up that easily, then maybe it wasn’t for me in the first place, and that could be true. Afterall, I was still trying to figure out which direction I wanted my life to head in, and perhaps being a teacher simply wasn’t something for me. But to experience what I did, and to know that if I went on to be a proper teacher that it would just continue that way felt exhausting to me.
Whatever progress that we feel we’ve made starts to fall away once you get out into the world you’ve only read about. The town I lived in will preach about how tolerant they are to anyone who will listen, but at the end of the day, Black men are perceived as potentially dangerous. We’re seen as volatile. We’re scary.
My boss at the time went off on the principal for what she’d said to me, but the damage was done. I loved the job, but I couldn’t stay there anymore. Hopefully, it was for the best. What I’m hoping to achieve in telling this story is to make some people realize that they could have prejudice within them they might not even be aware of, and that their actions can be influenced by these prejudices, and cause harm to others.
I also hope that if there are Black men out there who want to be teachers, they’ll read a story like mine and be prepared. They’re always going to have something to say, and they’re always going to have a problem with the way you do things, but you have to keep going if you really want it. I didn’t know if it was what I wanted, but it’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and I wasn’t even a proper teacher. I can’t even imagine how rewarding the real thing must feel.
Black children need to see us. They need to go to school and hear the history from our mouths. They need to hear the words of our forefathers and mothers in our voices. They need to see us and see another way forward for themselves. We can do it and we have to. I’m still going to try and be an educator in some regard. We have to. For them.
Andrew Keahey is a horror enthusiast and writer currently based in Austin, Texas. He’s been watching horror movies since he was far too young, and primarily writes essays, short fiction, and poetry. Find him on Twitter: @formaldehydefce