Yesterday, my mom was going through a bunch of old papers and finding out what things she needed to shred and get rid of. There were documents from all parts of our lives, from Duncan (my lab who passed away almost three years ago) and his many medical procedures to old school worksheets. While I was working on something else, my mom gave me a long envelope with a packet that she told me she wanted to read. In that packet? A psychological evaluation from when I was eleven years old in 6th grade. And in that packet, I had been diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder I did not know I was evaluated for. Until yesterday.
For the past twenty-four hours or so, I’ve spent most of my time just thinking about everything I had read, everything that had transpired during that time, and everything in my life that led to this even happening. I read the report, saw what my teachers, my principal, my parents, my therapist told me, and after all of that, I then read the formal diagnosis. And it did not make any sense for one clear and particularly disturbing reason: it didn’t mention the glooming factor that I was the only Black student in any social situations I ever had outside my own family.
I grew up exclusively as the only Black kid in my grade up until that year I got the diagnosis. Throughout my entire educational experience thus far, I’ve not only encountered subtle racist stereotyping from teachers or fellow students, but I’ve also been flat out told that I wasn’t smart enough to do well in certain classes even with the grades to show I excelled. I was bullied and harassed by students for a lot of my elementary school days and not given the same resources or attention in my classes by teachers. I fell into a fairly deep depressive state in fifth grade that prompted all of these evaluations and cognitive tests because for the first time I realized I just needed help.
As I read through what my teachers described my behavior, that I always worked independently and didn’t want to be around other people, that even though I excelled in my classes, they spoke with a concern that didn’t at all make them question WHY I chose to distance myself or feel like I had to prove my intelligence again and again. I developed a strong habit of always trying to assert and prove to people I was good enough and capable enough to be a great student because not enough teachers gave me that same level of encouragement they did to other students. Rather than seeming curious or wanting to cultivate this sort of deeper level thinking and engagement with me as a student, they described me as being antisocial and not an active contributor in my classes like others. It was a lot of “sure you do well, but what about all of these other things that we aren’t willing to help support you? You don’t want to do things with people your age.”
I know these disparities because the few friends I did have had far different, more positive memories of middle school and had gotten more support by administration. I know about these disparities in treatment because of how my parents were told about my behavior, about my brother’s behavior, and seeing other parents treated with far more care and needing respect. It’s as I grew older, as I learned about these stories, connected my past experiences, and it’s only in hindsight I’m becoming more cognizant of how much my life was shaped by race in ways I couldn’t articulate but just knew were problems.
I do disagree with that diagnosis with my knowledge about the circumstances I have today.
No one besides my parents and my therapist knew about this diagnosis until I guess you all, and I honestly am so grateful for that. To think about how many different ways my teachers were seeking to justify my “other” treatment or lack of care for my education like their peers, I cannot imagine what them both knowing anything about this and then treating me worse or denying my abilities to be a strong student. I think what’s been the most disturbing part of this whole report that I read through was the duality that exists with being a Black student and the racism when it comes to learning challenges in particular. It’s either that you are not properly given the adequate resources or the adequate diagnosis to support you because they do not value you enough as a student, or it’s that they go actively out of your way to separate you or treat you as something less than to justify separating you or treating you with less care. Either situation, it’s oftentimes a permanent disturbance and hindrance to your future in school. I am so grateful that my parents fought against all of these challenges throughout my schooling before college to ensure that I had as equitable a chance to do well as anyone else. They gave me the circumstances to allow me to flourish and succeed when so many people told me that I could not.
Why am I sharing all of this on the blog this week? Well, this is of course my blog and I just write about whatever I’m thinking about (in this case, this had been on my mind so I’m writing about it). But why I’m choosing to be honest and forthright about this is because stories like mine, the stories of Black students everywhere who are told they don’t behave well or that they shouldn’t be given the same amount of energy or resources as all other students, are stories that are always much closer to your experience than you want them to be. I think about ending all tracking in schools, ending specialized high schools, ending standardized testing, and so many other ideas that ultimately were never about cultivating people’s abilities to learn but to continuously oppress students and not give them the chance to succeed. I write about this today with the knowledge and awareness that I’ve been fortunate enough to build these past few months, but just generally throughout my whole life. Everything since that time has played out in the best possible scenario, so I’m just gonna be focused on reflecting on the future and seeing what truths I can come to from all of this. I hope this awareness can only further guide my understanding and plans for true liberation for all Black people everywhere. Till next week…
Being Noah Tesfaye #144: A Black Boy in an Anti-Black School
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