Everyday I'm Reminded...

Everyday I walk into my school building and I am reminded that I am Black. Not that I don’t know or recognize my Blackness, it’s that what I see, hear, and experience reminds me constantly that I am Black in a white space.  I’m reminded that I am a Black woman, a mother of a Black girl and Black boy, a Black educator, a Black teacher leader, a Black Person. Everyday I see and feel what goes on through each one of these lenses and my identities intersect into one. 

What you are about to read is just one story of many about being a Black educator in a mostly white space. This story has haunted me since the day it happened and I’m ready to write it and move forward. 

I’ve worked for the past 18 years for the same school district. My district is considered wealthy and our student body is growing to be a rich representation of our global world. The teaching staff and administration still remains primarily white, 96% white. Over the summer of 2020 our IBPOC students led a social media movement to tell their stories of oppressions they have felt in our schools. The fact is, I work in a school system where the students, too, are reminded “who” they are when they walk into their school.

The truth about being reminded everyday that I’m Black on a majority white staff is that it’s lonely. Especially on days where I just can’t deal with one more microaggression because the macroaggressions are taking most of my time and energy already. After reading what the students were experiencing through their social media movement, it was obvious that the climate in our schools was also taking a toll on them. Reading the students’ stories last summer made me want to start a social media movement for BIPOC teachers in our district but I knew that this was a time for students' voices to be heard.

But...if IBPOC teachers from my district ever did start a campaign to tell our stories, this would be the story I would share.  

As an elementary teacher, I work with my colleagues on improving the literacy experiences, skills, and knowledge of our beloved students. One particular morning, I walked into the classroom of one of my colleagues to show her a new book I thought she would love. It was around 8am so I just quietly popped my head in to make sure she was there.

The teacher greeted me from her desk. I pulled up a chair as I said good morning and did my typical, “have you seen this new book” while handing it to her to look at. I could tell she wanted to share something with me by the way she shifted in her seat while glancing at her planbook. 

I asked her what she was working on.

She quickly responded that she had an idea for opinion writing that she was excited about. I remember her words vividly, “excited about.”

My first emotion was joy. This teacher  had an idea she was excited about and wanted to share it with me. It always feels good to be a thinking partner with a colleague around ideas they had around our curriculum.

I said, “Tell me about your idea.”

She places both hands on her desk and assumes an excited disposition while she says, “Lynsey, I think the students should write an opinion piece on whether or not they believe the underground railroad was a good idea.”  

I don’t even know what my face looked like at that moment but I couldn’t even fix it as the words, tell me more, came out of my mouth and the words, “if the underground railroad was a good idea,” echoed in my head. 

She proceeds with, “Well in social studies we were learning about Harriet Tubman and the kids and I just went on and on about how dangerous that must have been and were questioning together if it was even a good idea.”

That’s when, “GOOD IDEA?,”  came so quickly out of my mouth. 

I had to pause.

As I tried to collect my thoughts, I asked her how she knew that this prompt would be appropriate for her students? All her students?

In hopes she would reflect.

I could tell she wasn’t happy with my response. But I also knew who was in her class and at that moment the Black mother in me was leading the meeting. I shared with her my concerns about what she was going to ask 8 year olds to do. I shared with her my concerns about the implications of such a question or prompt. I shared with her so much, but lastly I shared with her how inhumane the prompt felt. 

She looked at me and said, I disagree.

Of course this story doesn’t have a happy ending.  

As I read the stories the students wrote over the summer of 2020 I kept thinking one day one of her students will write this story. The intersections of my identities are beautiful. I know that they are beautiful but knowing the beauty of them doesn’t stop the pain and loneliness I feel when shit like this happens.

I left that room done for the day and it was only 8:30am. I knew that there was no one I could run to and tell that would even begin to understand the gravity of how I was feeling. 

As a Black mother I wanted to immediately pull the Black and Brown students from that situation.

As a Black educator I couldn’t believe students would be subjected to this assignment.

As a Black teacher leader I couldn’t believe students were going to be positioned in ways they didn’t have words for. 

As a Black person I couldn’t believe that escaping for freedom was even debatable.  

I was the only IBPOC person in that building on this day and at that very moment I needed someone else.

This happened several years ago  but I still haven’t shaken it. I walk around my school building and little Black and Brown children traditionally stop and run to give me a hug. I touch base with them and make sure they are ok. This happens so much other teachers say things like, “it's so good they have you.” Again, another microaggression, we have so much work to do. I’m beginning to focus on the children. Celebrate my intersecting identities and not let other teachers’ ignorances be a source of my pain. The joy is coming from the children and the work we are doing to share our stories and raise our voices together.

But still...

Everyday I walk into my school building and I am reminded that I am Black. I’m reminded that I am a Black woman, a mother of a Black girl and Black boy, a Black educator, a Black teacher leader, a Black Person. Everyday. And Everyday I’m Proud.

Lynsey Burkins @lburkins

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by William Brown (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).