A Seat at the Table

In addition to teaching 8th grade ELA, I also teach Research Methods and Capstone Writing in the Urban Teaching Residency (UTR) program in the Graduate School of Education (GSE) at UPenn. (That knowledge and $1.25–if you have EZ Pass–will get you across the Delaware on Rt 295 in Mercer Co.) As it’s May, I’m just finishing up reading my students’ theses for completion of their Master’s Degree. One of my students designed her study to be a case study of two formerly incarcerated men. She wanted to find out how their former incarceration affected their children’s education. One of the men received a pardon, and the other is going through the pardon process. What she found and wrote about was heartbreaking.

These men were simply kids–18 or slightly older–when they committed their crimes. They spoke honestly and openly about what they did. They talked about how they talk with their children about their past and their mistakes. They now both hold Bachelor’s degrees. One has a Master’s Degree and works in counseling. The other is pursuing a Master’s Degree. They have paid their debt to society. They are productive members of society. And yet, they struggle to be productive members of their children’s school communities because the school excludes them. One of the men was unable to chaperone a school field trip after self-disclosing that he spent time in prison. In fact, the teacher didn’t tell him he couldn’t attend the trip. She told his wife. In that moment he became–Less than. 

Ian, one of the men, said to my student, “I am commanding a seat at the table” when speaking about his advocacy work. He also said that he’s not a felon; he’s a person convicted of a felony. Words matter. Labels matter. Changing that label that mainstream America (white, middle class America) gives someone matters. Calling Ian someone convicted of a felony changes him and makes him human again. 

I read Ian and Erik’s stories in my students’ thesis at the same time I read Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes. I knew nothing about her latest book until I picked it up in my neighborhood Little Free Library. I was THRILLED to find it there. It is part of the LFL Read in Color Program. I was tempted to purloin the book for my classroom library, but I figured my neighborhood kids needed the book too.

As I started to read the book, I realized that Ian and Erik’s story were being played out on the pages of this book. Donte, the protagonist, simply gets in trouble for being black. He’s often told “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” His older brother who is very light-skinned, unlike Donte.

The book begins with Donte sitting in the headmaster’s office. Another student threw a pencil in class when the teacher’s back was turned. The teacher automatically blamed Donte. And Donte is now very upset and sitting in the headmaster’s office waiting for punishment. This is not the first time he’s gotten in trouble for simply being black in an all-white prep school. 

“Sitting, I stare at the black specks on the white linoleum…Except I won’t believe I’m just a black speck. I’m bigger, more than that. Though sometimes I feel like I’m swimming in whiteness” (Rhodes 3-4).

As he is accused by the headmaster and assistant headmaster of his “crime,” Donte becomes more and more frustrated. They don’t ask him what happened. They don’t listen to him. They simply react. And then he reacts.

“A murmur, then a roar: ‘I hate being me.’ 

Disgusted I swing my backpack. Bam. It slams at my feet. 

‘Call security,’ says Mr. Waters. Mrs. Kay backs away. She’s scared. Of me.

I cringe. 

‘No, the police,’ says Headmaster. He’s done with me. 

The plan all along. Get me out of Middlefield Prep” (Rhodes 9). 

Donte was accused of throwing a pencil that he didn’t throw. And in frustration slammed his backpack on the floor in the headmaster’s office–a normal reaction for a seventh grade boy. And now the cops are being called. And Donte is marched out of school in handcuffs. Overreact much?

Except, according to Rhodes’ author’s note, this type of thing happens all the time to students of color. And it’s easy to believe. First it’s schools issuing draconian punishments to students of color, which then escalates to police shootings outside of schools. 

Black Brother, Black Brother explores the school-to-prison pipeline. “African-American students, for instance, are 3.5 times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled, according to a nationwide study by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.  Black children constitute 18 percent of students, but they account for 46 percent of those suspended more than once.

For students with disabilities, the numbers are equally troubling. One report found that while 8.6 percent of public school children have been identified as having disabilities that affect their ability to learn, these students make up 32 percent of youth in juvenile detention centers.

One 2005 study found that children are far more likely to be arrested at school than they were a generation ago. The vast majority of these arrests are for nonviolent offenses. In most cases, the students are simply being disruptive. And a recent U.S. Department of Education study found that more than 70 percent of students arrested in school-related incidents or referred to law enforcement are black or Hispanic. Zero-tolerance policies, which set one-size-fits-all punishments for a variety of behaviors, have fed these trends” (Elias).

Once in the system, students are trapped. The odds of them not graduating from high school double. They are more likely than not to end up incarcerated as adults.

In Black Brother, Black Brother, Donte’s one of the “lucky” ones. His mother is a lawyer. His father is white. When he stands before the judge, he realizes he can use this to his advantage. “I see it. Plainly see it. I’m not who the judge expected me to be. And that’s my advantage. It’s harder to stereotype me” (Rhodes 143). 

And Donte gets his chance to avoid the school-to-prison pipeline simply because the judge doesn’t see him as a label, but sees him as a person. 

And this is just one layer to this book–one layer that examines the school-to-prison pipeline. Another layer examines what it means to be biracial. Another layer examines the world of fencing–and what it means to be a person of color in a historically white sport. Another layer is a coming of age story.

And that’s exactly what I love about Jewell Parker Rhodes’ writing and her works. She takes seemingly simple stories and weaves complex narratives into them. She shows her readers how complex the world is without preaching to them. She makes her characters flawed but still unbelievably likable. My heart broke for Donte on the first pages of the book. I was frustrated and angry just as he was. I wanted to know what he had done. Why he was being treated this way. And what was being done to protect him. In the end, Donte was the only one who could protect himself. And as the reader gets to know Donte, they begin to learn he’s no longer the suspicious black kid. He’s just Donte. And he should be heard. He should have a seat at the table. 

Elias, Marilyn. “The School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Learning for Justice. Issue 43. Spring 2013, https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/spring-2013/the-school-to-prison-pipeline. Accessed 8 May 2021.

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