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Thompson: Ta-Nehisi Coates & School Reform

image from ecx.images-amazon.comToni Morrison rightly compares Ta-Nehisi Coates to James Baldwin. I hope teachers and education policy makers will read Coates Between the World and Me, and consider its obvious implications for school improvement. I do not want to drag his beautiful book, a touching letter to his son, into our vicious school reform wars. Instead, I will review some of the key parts of Coates’s wisdom that can inform our practice and education policy, and mostly leave our education civil war to another day.

I would think that teachers would be thrilled to have a politically conscious student like Coates. Surely most of us would welcome the creative insubordination of a high school student who would quote Nas and challenge us with the idea “schools where I learned they should be burned, it is poison.”  After all, teachers and education policy-makers should all wrestle with Coates’s indictment of schools for “drugging us with false morality.”

At times, however, class discussions involving Coates could easily become uncomfortable. He “was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests.” Moreover, “if the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up on your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.” If that doesn’t hit too close to home, Coates adds that he resented school more than the streets.

Schools are supposed to be a “means of escape from death and penal warehousing.” But, too often, educators don’t understand what it takes for poor children of color to avail themselves of that escape hatch. For instance, he recalls that “each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not.”

Coates knew he was being robbed of that third of his consciousness, and that education should enrich his entire mind.  But, he felt that school “had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls.” Coates found himself “unfit for the schools, and in good measure wanting to be unfit for them.”

One scene in Between the World and Me that has gained attention is its account of Coates’s insubordination with his 9th grade teacher and his father’s response. Reaching for his belt, his father said, “I can beat him, or the police.” (This scene becomes especially valuable when read in context with Jorja Leap’s Project Fatherhood.)   Coates says of the punishment, “Maybe that saved me. Maybe it didn’t.”  He then explains how this dynamic pervades so much of the ghetto. “All I know is, the violence rose from the fear like smoke from a fire, and I cannot say whether that violence, even administered in fear and love, sounded the alarm or choked us at the exit.” Coates concludes this episode, “Our parents resorted to the lash the way that flagellants in the plague resorted to the scourge.”

Coates knew that schools were supposed to help students “grow up and be somebody.” But, he rightfully asks “what precisely did this have to do with an education rendered as rote discipline?” To this precocious teen, schools meant “always picking an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly. Educated children walked in single file on the right side of the hallway, raised their hands to use the lavatory and carried the lavatory pass when en route.”

I assume that all children ask basically the same question in their own words, “what did it mean … number 2 pencils, conjugations without context?” On the other hand, for inner city children like Coates, “Pythagorean theorems, handshakes, and head nods were the difference between life and death.” Educators must do much more to prevent kids from feeling “curtains drawing down between the world and me”

As we discuss ways of stopping the “school to prison pipeline,” we should borrow from the approach of Coates’s grandmother. Her intervention anticipated today's Restorative Justice program. When he was in trouble at school, she made him write about it, asking “why did I feel the need to talk at the same time as my teacher? Why did I not believe that my teacher was entitled to respect? … What would I do the next time I felt the urge to talk to my friends during a lesson?”

And that brings us to a last lesson. At a time when No Excuses schools (perhaps like flagellants in the plague resorting to the scourge) and other competition-driven schools focus on basic skills instruction to meet test score metrics, Coates’s offers an alternative – books. He writes, “I devoured the book because they were rays of light peeking out from the doorframe, and perhaps past that door there was another world, one beyond the gripping fear that undergirded the dream.”

Hopefully, Between the World and Me will inform the next stage of the school reform debate. Reformers will have every right to cite Coates when condemning the brutal education “status quo” they sought to transform. But, they cannot improve the lives of children in neighborhoods like Coates’s Baltimore until they listen to students and their families.  We cannot continue to ignore the "low-grade, ever-present fear” these children bring to school. Neither can we help them with the shortcut of imposing a second-class, regimented alternative in increasingly segregated schools. The Ta-Nehisi Coates is the Ta-Nehisi Coates of America, and the children from his community deserve equal respect.-JT (@drjohnthompson)  


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