"Miss, reading is for white people.”
These words sent shockwaves through my soul.
It was a typical February day in the Skeeter Library. I buzzed about--doing my Book Pusher Thing--convincing high school students to check out books to read for fun. This is the part of my job that I love the best, but it can also feel like teaching toddlers to tango.
Jose sat at a table with four other boys, two Hispanic and two black, when he said those words. They snickered at his comment, and Jose basked in the glow of the validation from his “squad.” Even though I felt horrified by his words, I didn’t let it show; I smiled and waited for them to stop laughing. Then I said, “I want to know why you think that.”
The boys sat in silence and then started talking. I listened.
One of the Hispanic boys said, “You know, Miss. Mexicans work on roofs and mow yards.”
One of the black boys added, “Black people hustle in the streets.”
“And white people read.” Jose concluded and then explained, “That’s just the way it is.” He shrugged, a hint of sadness in his eyes.
“But it doesn’t have to be that way.” I calmly stated, even though my blood boiled. I tried my best not to let my emotions show: Horror. Despair. Anger. I was not angry at these boys; my anger burned at the world we have made for them and the ignorant view they now believed to be their fate. I took a deep breath. Summoning my courage, I asked, “Do you realize that these are racial stereotypes?”
They looked at me blankly, and then Jose spoke up. “How do we change it, Miss?”
“Read,” I stated. Because that’s my answer for everything.
I wish I could tell you that each of those five boys checked out a “gateway” book that day, a book that would ignite a lifelong love of reading, and therefore, free their minds from the bondage of those hard-wired stereotypes. But that’s not what happened. I think I convinced two of the five to check out a book, and I’m not sure if either of the boys read it.
That eye-opening conversation continued to haunt me throughout the rest of the school year. It changed the way I viewed the stiff-armed responses that I got from many of my non-readers, mostly black and Hispanic boys. But rather than think, I don’t agree, so they are wrong, I started leaning into the discomfort. I started asking other boys what they thought about reading being a “white thing.” Most of them agreed with Jose: reading means whiteness, and education means selling out.
These hard conversations ripped away my color blindness. As a child of the 80s and 90s, I was taught to “not see color,” which I don’t think is wrong, but I think we are learning a better way--to embrace different colors and cultures as a way to unite us instead of divide us. As Dr. Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” I felt like I could do better.
I work at a majority-minority high school; 90% of my students are Hispanic, African American, or Asian. I am often in the minority--one of the few white people in the room. I started to notice this fact this past school year, even though I worked at majority-minority schools most of my career. At first, I felt ashamed of this sudden realization. Was it wrong for me to notice race? But this consciousness did not make me uncomfortable, it made me aware. It did not change my behavior towards or treatment of people; it made me think. It made me think about All American Boys, a young adult novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, that I read in November 2015. It made me think about The New Jim Crow, a powerful nonfiction book by Michelle Alexander that I read in February 2016.
As conversations and books swirled in my mind, an idea that one of my assistant principals planted began to take root, but I was scared to let it sprout. Jose’s words served as the catalyst I needed to push away the fear and take a chance. With the help of the English teachers on my campus, we assembled a Book Club of seventeen freshmen and sophomore boys who read All American Boys and discussed it last spring. All members were non or reluctant readers; most were black or Hispanic; most had not finished a book since elementary school. Or ever.
We met daily during school for twenty minutes to read silently. I fed them snacks on Fridays while we discussed our reading. Two seniors lead the discussions; I listened.
As the mother of daughters, I didn’t know what to expect from facilitating a group of boys, and that’s what I feared. I thought they wouldn’t take it seriously; they might laugh like Jose did and shun reading in an attempt to maintain their credibility.
But they didn’t. They opened up. They shared their stories. They shared their fears. They called me “School Mom.” And I affectionately called them “My Boys.”
My Boys surprised me. My Boys taught me.
Unfortunately, Jose could not join the Book Club because he transferred to another school before we started, but I gave him a copy of All American Boys. I hope he read it. I hope that he realizes that he can claim his culture and his education; he does not have to choose; he can have both.
Because All American Boys deals with the harsh realities of police brutality, I invited our School Resource Officer to read the book and discuss it with us. When the SRO came to our first meeting, tension filled the room as we tackled hard issues--systemic racism and racial profiling--but as the boys slowly began to share their stories, I could feel the leaning in, the listening, easing the tension. We all left that room a bit different than when we walked into it.
That’s the power of hard conversations.
When this school year started, I knew that I needed to start another book club. I decided to repeat the process with All American Boys to see if the magic could be recreated with a different group of boys. I admit that it was hard to go into a new group with open expectations because the last one held a special place in my heart. But I’m happy to report that it has been a wonderful experience and confirms the findings of my research: when students read relevant books in which they see themselves; when relationships are formed in an authentic way; when issues of race are addressed in honest conversations, readers are made.
I’m not naive enough to believe that the complex problems of our society can be solved by books. But I believe it’s a good place to start. Reading equates education, and to me, education brings freedom. I firmly believe that we can "read our way out" of closed- mindedness and stereotypes.