Disappointment is most frequently delivered via text, I believe. The messenger feels safer this way: he avoids having to see your facial reaction, the tone of your voice, your immediate comeback. It’s the chicken way of communicating. Last week, my son clucked.
Dear Mom and Dad: Today I got in trouble for doing a terrible thing. I copied my friend’s homework assignment. I know what I did is wrong and I am very sorry.
Let me tell you why my chicken crossed the road: . . . to get his ass home immediately because I, his mother, said he better do so ASAP. There was no way I was going to allow him to hide in the chicken coop of texting. Come on home little birdy. I’m about to pluck your feathers!
“What the hell, Evan!” I demanded as I looked up from my computer, when he walked into my room where I was sitting on my tan comforter.
“I knoooow mom,” he responded.
“Well, I don’t know. I don’t know what in the hell would cause you to copy another kid’s homework!” I went on to explain my disappointment; to rail about how he let down his family, Black America, and himself; to give him a lesson on integrity; to use curse words he probably had never heard before. The fiery sermon continued when his father got home. Evan, who was turning 15 the next day, lost his birthday privileges, his cell phone, and access to all television, and spent the evening writing his teacher a 4-paragraph letter of apology.
We, his parents, were extremely disappointed and admittedly shocked (this was the first really bad thing that Evan had done –or at least been caught doing-as I’m not one of those parents who thinks their kid is perfect). There’s just something especially hurtful when your kids disappoint you. It feels like a personal betrayal – like all of the 2 a.m. back rubs you delivered to comfort a bad dream, all of the music and swimming lessons you couldn’t really afford, all of the talks you’ve had about the difference between right and wrong behavior, all of the school volunteering and Chucky Cheese visits didn’t matter.
We left Evan to clean the kitchen and each poured a glass of our chosen “medicine”, went to our room, and opened our laptops to do a little work. In our emails we found a letter to both of us from our son’s teacher describing what my son had done. He had copied and pasted another kid’s homework packet: 7 pages of fill-in-the-blank answers designed to assess whether a student read the assigned book (this was make-up work from when my son had been out with the flu).
What struck us about the letter from his young teacher was how “condescending” it was. The opening paragraph included a definition of what “plagiarism” was (as if we didn’t know). It went on to note that copying another student’s work was unacceptable (duh). It noted the importance of academic integrity (double duh). And concluded with commentary that plagiarism in college would violate the code of conduct at many universities and could result in expulsion (as if we couldn’t possibly know this information or have attended college).
There are some people who are quick to take offense, and immediately begin assuming that they are being treated a certain way because they are a member of an frequently oppressed group: Black, gay, overweight, poor, elderly, etc. On the contrary, there are those who refuse to even acknowledge that there is discrimination. Oppositely, I would say that I’m somewhere in the middle. I definitely pause and consider before I accuse.
My son attends a school that is 90% White, with 97% of all parents having college degrees, and almost all are upper middle class to wealthy. Almost all the Black students who attend are bussed in from a depressed area. So I couldn’t help but wonder if the teacher assumed that because my son is Black, he is also poor and that his parents are also uneducated. Did the teacher assume that we, his parents, wouldn’t understand plagiarism? Would they have defined plagiarism to a pair of white or Asian parents? Why did she feel compelled to lecture us on the importance of academic integrity? Did she see my son, with his urban fashion, hair twists and natural swagger for who he is? Could she “see” us as his parents and the Black professionals we are?
My husband and I also tried to set-up a meeting with the teacher. We are still waiting for that meeting. I have difficulty believing that she would treat the “typical” parents, whom are extremely demanding and entitled, the same way.
I continued to question the role bias was playing in the teacher’s treatment of me and my son when the punishment seemed excessive (instead of getting one zero on the packet, my son was going to get 7 zeros, one for each page, making it difficult for him to pass the class for the quarter). We had been told previously that teachers are more lenient on the freshmen students when they make a mistake so that they have an opportunity to learn from their mistake (they usually are allowed to make-up the assignment, but earn one letter down). The teacher certainly wasn’t being lenient with my son, my freshman, my 14 year old.
I worry. Perhaps because I am a diversity trainer and I understand that everyone, even the kindest person has biases. I know that African American males are disproportionately disciplined in schools. They are disciplined far more frequently and receive exceedingly tougher punishments for the same offenses as their non-Black peers (In 2015, the statewide African-American suspension rate was 17.8 percent, meaning 17.8 suspensions of African-Americans occurred for every 100 African-American students enrolled. The figure for Hispanics was 5.2 percent, for whites, 4.4 percent, and for Asians, 1.2 percent). I also understand the ramifications of these disparities.
I can’t stomach the thought of my son having fewer chances for success than any other child. I feel the fierce need to protect my son. I accept that he did something very wrong; and I believe that it’s important for him to learn by having consequences. I simply don’t want his consequences to be any more severe than a non-Black child’s consequences.
But what do I do? Surely, I can’t explain to the teacher (or to the White assistant principal, White guidance counselor, or White principal) that I believe that unconscious bias is guiding their treatment of my family. While I try to always consider how my biases may be affecting my decisions and actions; most people are extremely reticent to admit weakness: particularly when it has to do with discrimination.
I’ve decided to keep the focus on my son. He’s who matters. I’ve disciplined him to an extent that I don’t think he will ever copy another kid’s homework again. I’ve talked to him about the severity of his actions. He knows, also, what I and his father are having to tolerate due to his behavior. I am continuing to try to resolve the grading issue with my son’s teacher, without mentioning bias. If she decides to give Evan 7 zeros, Evan will learn an additional lesson, not about cheating, but about what it means to be a Black young man in America.