By Rashaad Thomas
News about school shootings, achievement gaps, the digital divide, COVID-19, and monkeypox inundate us daily. Watching my 7-year-old daughter walk onto her school campus for her first day of second grade makes not worrying about all that extremely difficult.
My wife and I struggled with the decision to send her to a Title I school — hers has a 63% Latino and 10% Black student body, with 53% of the students from low-income families. There’s nothing wrong with the students, but we didn’t want her to be assigned a teacher with a white savior complex or be impacted by the school’s lack of resources.
We also know that no matter what public school she attends, Black students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their non-Black peers. In addition, there’s the reality that 85% of Black students lack proficiency in reading skills — a sign that the way Black children are taught isn’t working. It’s also important to us that she sees herself reflected in the school faculty, her class peers, and that she attends a school with a dual language Spanish program.
My daughter’s asking difficult questions about race, gender, and class. For example, before the pandemic, she told me she wanted straight hair because it’s better than curly hair. That’s when we made the decision to send her to a diverse school because there are other children there with the same hair texture.
With all that in mind, I penned a letter to her that recognizes her intelligence and beauty, and thanks her for the lessons she taught me throughout the pandemic. No doubt, those of you who are parents or caregivers — as well as folks reflecting on their own schooling experiences — will relate to what I wrote her.
A few weeks ago, you asked, “Can Black people be police officers?”
I laughed from discomfort, hoping the moment would pass so I didn’t have to answer. It is difficult not to project my fears of the police onto you. As hard as it is to say, yes, Black people can be police officers. If you want to be a police officer, you can be a police officer.
It’s my responsibility to teach you how the world works, but in the last two years, you have taught me more than I have ever learned in any classroom. America projects its fears on our bodies. And I have projected my fears of America — and the pandemic — onto your body. It is a vicious cycle and a generational curse.
When I look at you, I see a young, proud Afro-Latina blossoming before my eyes. You walk in the footsteps of Afro-Latina women, like Julia Constanza, Burgos García, Gwen Ifill, Celia Cruz, and Elizabeth Acevedo. Despite the residual pain from the COVID-19 pandemic, returning to school reminds us to reflect on our time together.
Our lives submitted to the pandemic. But it has also provided space to honor our ancestors’ resilience coded in our DNA. Like many families, we lived on an extreme learning curve, adapting to virtual classrooms and in-person school protocols. We discussed why certain students weren’t online who you’d seen physically in class before the pandemic.
Schools have partnered with internet service providers to provide low-income families with affordable high-speed internet. But the pandemic made it hard for so many families to maintain a consistent income.
We have been blessed with the privilege of high-speed internet. Also, I am a stay-at-home father. We kept you home because it was best for you and our family.
Many essential workers, like bus drivers and grocery store workers, are the sole breadwinners of families of color. They had to leave their family and homes to work, which forced some children to return to school prematurely because of the lack of daycare.
In Spring 2022, you returned to school in person. After two weeks of school, you contracted the COVID-19 virus. While in quarantine, you continued to work hard on your schoolwork. You returned to class as if you hadn’t missed a day.
It is the 2022-2023 school year. Second grade!
I feel unprepared for you to leave my arms in the morning. Together, you and I have covered a lot of material that typically isn’t taught in classrooms. I was taken aback when you told me you don’t like wearing dresses. Parents are quick to say it’s a phase. I know, I did. I projected my social conditioning that girls wear dresses onto you.
Last year I asked you about your classmate, who was a boy and wore dresses. You looked bewildered at me and said, “Yeah, he’s a boy. And he wears dresses.”
For a long time, it was illegal in the United States for people of different racial backgrounds to get married. The love between your mother and me created your beautiful curly hair. It doesn’t have to be straight to be pretty. Remember, your curly hair is a crown of queens.
We’ve talked about race and skin color. Your friends see your skin color. Your Black friends might only see you as Latino, and your Latino friends might only see you as Black. Throughout your life, people will ask, are you team, light or dark skin?
We saw this play out in the crayon colors offered to you during art class. You realized the crayons in class didn’t allow you to create drawings of the people you see daily. Teachers are getting better at being not only tolerant but also inclusive. But, just in case, we have flesh-colored crayons at home to finish your assignments.
Always ask questions. If you can, ask both in English and Spanish. You may be embarrassed because you don’t see your friends asking questions. But you must understand your lessons. Being an artist, doctor, and astronaut will take a lot of work.
I’ve learned I need to leave room for change and create new experiences and lessons for you. As adults, we think foreshadowing the future because of our past is the best method of preparing the next generations for tomorrow. But, watching you for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve learned that you are part of a generation that’s preparing adults for a different tomorrow.