“Don’t worry about him, class, he will never be anyone anyway” spoken by the Principal of Montgomery elementary school moments before I fell asleep in class
“The best job you can hope for is a plumber” — grumbled the Science teacher at Nashwaaksis middle school while handing back a test I failed
“I will only let you pass this class if you sign this document (written in pencil that said I’ll never take another art class) and promise me you will never try any of these skills again” — whispered an Art teacher at Leo Hayes high school after class when I asked what I could do to pass their class.
As a black child going through the New Brunswick education system, I was taught some valuable lessons. These informal teachings were sharpened at every grade level, reinforced by routine experiences with faculty and other students.
I’ve had students spit on me, bullies call me racial slurs, teachers accuse me of making everything up, and friends supporting me by saying “you don’t even act black why would they say that”. In the hallways I was given no personal space, people would casually grab fistfuls of my hair while commenting to their friend about the texture then thanking me while walking off and laughing like they won a bet.
I have seen students throw things at teachers and get warnings then turn around and kick me out of class for whispers. I’ve sat through entire classes while people filled my hair with pieces of paper thrown from across the room while the teacher did nothing despite my repeated attempts to ask for help. I’ve been kicked out of classes for disturbing the learning environment after telling my bullies to leave me alone.
I never smoked, drank, fought, or swore in school. The biggest crimes I ever committed in school were consistently asking why my actions received the maximum punishment. Other students always got warnings. Almost everyone else received the benefit of the doubt. Me? I only received commands to obey and punishments for asking how I ended up in this situation. “you know what you did” a common tactic thrown down from the gods to judge me guilty without any hope of innocence.
No one ever explained anything to me, I was always ordered. I never got the chance to be a student because all the teachers viewed me as a threat.
After graduating late from grade school, I was professionally diagnosed with multiple learning disabilities. My life became visits to different doctors all prescribing me chronic mental health conditions and pills to help said conditions.
Many years after my K-12 experience was spent on government social assistance and going to weekly therapy sessions to working on my self-esteem. Struggling mentally with being someone who loves to read but is terrified of learning. Battling socially with a person inside who lives to help others but gets stress headaches from sharing opinions, never able to see value in themselves. All because for more than 12 years of my life, the people paid to motivate me to dream decided instead to poison my ambition.
Even writing this feels like peeling scabs off my soul. Trapped in my choice to embrace my life I find myself forced to rip down these disgusting layers of emotional damage. Gripping the warm burnt omelette substance with both hands as I choose to relive all these memories. Questioning everything I’ve done as I tear sheet after massive sheet that’s been cocooned around the me I’ve been so ashamed of.
The weirdest part of all this? I thought it was normal. That this was the regular New Brunswick educational experience. This is just what school is like and apparently, it just wasn’t for people like me.
And then I read ‘You Must Be a Basketball Player: Rethinking Integration in the University’ by Anthony Stewart and my whole world shattered. Here was a Black professor who lived in a city just 5 hours away who wrote and published a book on the exact same experiences I’ve had. Experiences he is still having as a grown man in a position of prestige gained from hard work and focus.
This novel brought me to tears because it taught me something that every single teacher in grade school tried to ignore. That being black is a different human experience. That I wasn’t crazy, I’m not stupid, I’m not worthless, and I’m not all the horrible things these adults with respectable careers in charge of our children’s personalities told me I was. That a black man can even go through all these things and still actually be successful. I am so happy to know that this isn’t just my experience, that its normal.
I know it’s a dark thing to celebrate but I have lived 32 years being told by people who ‘don’t see colour’ that I am not aggressive enough to be black while also claiming that I speak like a white person. I’ve never been able to be myself, every trait I’ve ever shown has been labelled as both black and white. My every experience with being black in Canada has been met with, marked by, and presented as, not normal. All my actions are filtered through and measured against what peoples perceived definition of black culture is.
But that’s okay because now I know that it’s normal. Now I know that the real students in those schools I attended where the teachers and they too were just learning something new. I wasn’t hated, and I’m not an ‘other’.
And I would like to thank the university professor for responding to my random email about finding my black identity. This professor I’ve never met and from another department, replied to this random student’s email with grace and respect. Offering me many excellent educational sources to start my journey into being Thandiwe.
One of the resources was this book, and it is no exaggeration to say it has changed my life. So I would like to end this post by thanking the professor who went out of their way to help a student learn not a subject worth marks…but learn how to be themselves.
I am proud to say that they are one of many teachers I’ve met in post-secondary education who have been positive influences in my life. Finally, I can say without shame,
I love learning.
Please help Thandiwe pursue a writing career. Check out more of his writing here.
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Thank you for sharing your story with clarity and grace. Stories change hearts. Data changes minds. Storytellers can create the empathic bridge that will change the world. Keep telling your story!
Great work ‘T.’ More and more as I am connecting with you I am become more impressed by you. You are for sure a chip off the ‘old’ block -(Although your mum is far from old) Don’t top writing! You are leaving your mark, your fingerprint really because what you write is uniquely you! God Bless! – Mae
Thank you for sharing your personal journey. Remember, you are a role model for millions around the world!
What a powerful story! It scares me, and it shames me, to think (and to realize) that I, an older white male, am one of those people that could have caused such everlasting pain and trauma to a young person of color. Thank you for sharing a bit of your story. I’m sorry.