The Only One

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At a time when I was the only black 7th grade teacher at a charter school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York (2015). 

Every day I stand in front of my diverse classroom intensely aware of my skin color. As the only black man teaching at my school, I am one of the 3.7 percent of New York City teachers that share my identity. This May, during Teacher Appreciation Month, I celebrated the critical impact black male educators have on the life of students who share similar experiences based on our gender, race, and life experiences. Despite the crucial impact we make, there are less black male teachers in NYC today than ten years ago. It is time for NYC, and the rest of America, to double down on recruiting, retaining, and developing excellent black male educators.

Growing up in Miami, I was one of the only black students through most of my schools and classes. Still, my teachers reflected the great diversity of my hometown – I had multiple African American, white, and Hispanic teachers of both genders throughout my K-12 education. It was these teachers that challenged and pushed me to become the learner, and later educator, that I am today.

Now, as the only black male teacher in a New York City public school, I am not just a teacher to my black boys and girls, I am a father figure, their uncle, their big brother, their mentor, and their hero. At the end of my first year in this school, a group of my black female students started to affectionately call me “Uncle” Toussaint. It has carried over into this school year. On my birthday, I found a card on my desk, signed by this group of four black girls and the card read, “Happy Birthday Uncle, you’ve done so much for us. You’re an amazing figure to have in our lives.” My connection with my students go beyond the content and test results. I look at them and see myself, 20 years ago. And in turn, I am someone they can see themselves becoming.

A study by the Institute for Labor Economics found that if a low-income black male student has a black teacher in elementary schools they are 39 percent less likely to drop out of school and more likely to attend college. These effects were even stronger when the teacher is a male or shares the gender as the students they teacher. Conversely, the media reports constantly about the disproportionately, higher rates of suspensions that black boys face in American schools. Not only are black boys susceptible to systematic racism and discrimination, but they are also susceptible to stereotypes that too often become self-fulling prophecies suffocated by dreams deferred.

In an age when our black boys are under constant attack, we must interrupt the status quo for young black male lives and the limited narrative that offer such limited options. As an educator of fifteen years, the solution I’ve seen work best is to recruit and retain black men in the teaching profession. Education is the most powerful vehicle people have to rise from humble circumstances and fight for better opportunities for their families and communities. When we recruit, support and retain black men in the crucial roles of educator, principal, counselor, or coach we provide a powerful opportunity for our young black boys. They are able to share some lessons that only a black man in American can truly pass on to a black boy; like how to survive an encounter with the police; how to code switch, how to fight with your words and not your fist, how to advocate for those like you and how to give back. This is the important difference a black male education can have on his students. It promotes a narrative that at times can seem non-existent, and makes it real, that black men can be intelligent, caring and a vital part of the development of children.

Nationwide, black men make up only 2 percent of the teachers, while half of all students are students of color. James Baldwin said, Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Our children need to see black male educators, who are professional, passionate, intelligent and tangible. It is time to deeply invest in effective initiatives that develop and recruit black male educators that address this issue nationwide.

As a black male educator, I am not just a teacher to my black boys and girls, I am a father figure, an uncle, a big brother, a mentor, and their hero. They trust me. They love me. 30 years in the school system and it seems all too familiar. I look around and I am the only one. But this time, I am not the only black boy, I am the only black man. 

 

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Quality Education for All Children

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We came, we marched, we conquered. I am not sure if all of our kids understood the importance of yesterday’s march. However, I can say that they enjoyed the experience. I simply enjoyed their smiles and their company. I am however saddened by the fact that their futures dangle in the hands of people who have no real insight on what it takes to give our children a fighting chance. How can you say you are a proponent for quality education and you bicker over policies, rhetoric and theory that ultimately puts adults first and children last?

Nonetheless, yesterday was hopefully, a step in the right direction for the spirits and minds of our children. Maybe one of them will be inspired to lead and fight for what they all deserve; a quality education.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmGgnleFvVc&feature=youtube_gdata

Do You Speak Haitian?

Florida has the largest Haitian population outside of Hisapniola (the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Nearly  400 hundred thousand people of Haitian descent reside in Florida and yet Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s defense attorney, did not know that Haitians do not speak Haitian. I was aghast. Haitian is not a language. This is a sad example of the lack of cultural awareness on the behalf of Zimmerman’s legal team. Do Americans speak American? Do Cubans speak Cuban? Do Jamaican’s speak Jamaican? For the record, Haitians speak Creole (Kreyol). I would not expect someone from Oshkosh, Wisconsin to know that. On the other hand,  anyone who lives in Florida and is working a high-profile case such as this one, should.

Even after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the entire planet witnessed  the toll over 200,000 lives taken,  while  another million people were left homeless, you would think that Zimmerman’s counsel would get it right. Granted, Rachel Jeantel is not the most articulate witness. Being Haitian-American myself, I will admit at times that I was embarrassed by Ms. Jeantel’s behavior and demeanor on the stand, but she was totally out of her element and dealing with the loss of her close friend. Zimmerman’s defense team had no excuse for not doing their research on a case with obvious cultural implications. In America, we have this disconnection that gives us the silent permission to dismiss certain subcultures. This is dangerous and quite frankly irresponsible.

Mr. O’Mara, after this is all over, please purchase a map and locate Haiti. I hear that the people there led the only successful slave revolt in human history and established the first black republic in the world in 1804.

“Do you speak Haitian?” Really?

Rachel Jeantel is being questioned by Mark O'Mara, George Zimmerman's defense attorney.
Rachel Jeantel being questioned by Mark O’Mara, George Zimmerman’s defense attorney. During his examination, Mr. O’Mara asked Ms. Jeantel if she spoke Haitian.

The Haitian Mother

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. My parents migrated to Miami, Florida from Haiti in the early 1970s to escape the notorious Duvalier regime. In those days Duvalier ruled Haiti with an iron fist and terrorized anyone who would dare oppose him. He and his tan tan makout left Haitians living in constant fear, from Port au Prince (Haiti’s capitol) to Port de Paix (My father’s hometown in Northwest Haiti). Like millions of immigrants before them, they came to the shores of the United States in search of a better life for themselves and their family. Since I can remember, they had always instilled in us the importance of education.

Every morning my mother woke us up at the crack of dawn. We did not attend our neighborhood schools because they were some of the worst schools in Miami. Our parents sent us to school in the white and Hispanic suburb of Miami Springs, from elementary to high school. This meant we had to wake up extra early to make sure we made it to school on time.

From day one, education was a priority in my household. There was only one thing greater than education, and that was God. There was zero tolerance for doing poorly in school and even less tolerance for heathenism. As a result I received numerous perfect attendance awards throughout elementary school. Ironically, I probably traveled further than any of my classmates each day. Most of the students at my elementary school lived within in the school’s boundary however, my siblings and I lived about 6 or 7 miles away in a neighborhood known as Allapattah. Mommy would drop us off on her way to work or she would leave bus fare for us to catch the MTA (Metro Transit Authority).

School started at 8:30 a.m., and our commute was about 30 minutes by car and about 45 minutes by bus. Not only did we get to school on time, but we arrived at least thirty minutes early in order to take advantage of the free breakfast.  Therefore, Mommy would wake us up each morning at 6 a.m. She’d first knock on our door like a drill sergeant, as if we were new cadets in basic training. Then she would flip the light switch and yell out to us in Haitian Creole, Leve’, leve’, leve’, li le pou nou al lekol (Wake up, wake up, wake up, it’s time for school).

From kindergarten to my senior year of high school, Mommy was my alarm clock. Even when she stopped barging into the room at the crack of dawn, I could still hear her floating through the house, washing up and making her daily cup of Bustello Café’. This was our morning ritual and we never missed a beat, we were always in school.

Today, I still have a long commute, but I do not let that stop me from being there and on time for my students each day.

Like all cultures, the importance of parental guidance and support is crucial in ones development. I was blessed to have two parents and my mother was a true disciplinarian. The portrait above demonstrates the unbroken strength of Haitian mothers.

Ayisyen on Campus

I speak in front of people all the time, but for some reason I was a little nervous tonight. The first speaker was a young professional Haitian-American by the name of Jean Pierre-Louis. His organization  Capracare Haiti is fairly new, less than two years old. His work is familiar but not taken for granted.  He is rebuilding and changing Haiti, one step at a time. Jean’s vision is written powerfully at the bottom of his business card, mete men nou ansanm pou nou viv an santé ( promoting health change through individual acts of courage).

Then it was my turn. I had been up since five in the morning, worked a full load teaching and debating with  7th graders about whether Christopher Columbus should receive credit or acknowledgement for discovering America, when in actuality he thought he was in Asia. Furthermore, my principal decided that we are going to have professional development on Fridays; afterschool.  After a less than inspiring P.D. session, I grabbed my materials hustled out of the building, ran across the street to the local bodega, grabbed a Nutriment and hopped on the 4 train.  I was tired from a long day and a longer week. But the idea of being able to talk about two of my passions for a few minutes in front of an intimate audience at NYU gave me the surge that I needed. What an incredible way to end the work week!

So I introduced myself, loosened the stoic crowd with some of my subtle humor, and it was on. The Community2Community video was a hit as always, and I used it to bring a real connection to what we are all doing in some form or another. There is something for everyone to do and that was my message this evening. “Give a man a fish…” I’m not a fisherman, but I am teacher and a coach; educating young people is what I do. Tonight I had the esteemed privilege of educating and informing others about the great work that Community2Community has been doing.

As the evening moved on and other groups presented, you could feel the energy and passion in the room begin to emerge. After the last presentation by Artists Village, we were all on our feet, inspired, energized, ready to mix, mingle and share ideas. They had just come back from Haiti, less than a week ago with an inspiring message of love and hope. It was beautiful.

The high point of the evening for me,  was when one of my former students walked into the room with about 20 other young men. Instantly, I knew was the leader. It was powerful to see. I could see my own influence and work after eight years of teaching begin to manifest, right before my very eyes. His name is Gerald Jean-Baptiste, he was a student of mine at North Miami Beach Senior High School, where I taught for six years. He is now a senior at NYU and the president of an organization on campus called Gentlemen of Quality.

At first he did not see me, but when he did, he immediately introduced me to his group of 20 or so gentlemen and the networking exploded. They all signed the Community2Community Volunteer Sheet and have agreed to help out whenever they can. Before long the once small, quiet, stoic room, turned into a buzz of life, laughter and excitement. I am more than proud of the work that H.A.S.A. is doing. They are bringing like-minded people together to work towards one cause.

I look forward to next year’s event. It will be a testimony to the work that we are all doing. This year’s event has already done that and more. Our dreams will not be deferred, for they are being realized each day through the great efforts of our young brothers and sisters on NYU’s campus.

The Art of Tongue Biting

This past Saturday while heading downtown on the 1 train, I had the unfortunate experience of sharing a 10 minute commute with half a dozen or so loud and obnoxious teenagers. They had obviously been drinking and smoking, as they reeked of alcohol and marijuana.

Every other word from their mouths were either expletives or the word n-word. Each time the n-word was used, I could feel it cutting away at the fabric of my being. As I looked around, I could tell that the other passengers were equally offended.

I made eye contact with an older African American gentleman (possibly in his late thirties). He had a bothered look on his face. Judging by his large build and hands, he could have been a construction worker or a former linebacker. I can tell that he wanted to say something, but he turned away from me and ignored the young men.

I turned to my right and I saw a sea of uncomfortable faces, but no one addressed the language or behavior of these young men. Black, white, young, old, visitor or resident, we were all held hostage by this unabashed show of ignorance.

My heart began to race, with my fist clinched as I glared in their direction. What would I say? How would I say it? These kids were drunk and high. If they had the audacity to drop the n-word so recklessly, how would they respond if I approached them? It was becoming unbearable .

As I started to work up the nerve to address them, their stop came and they exited the train at Times Square. As loudly and obnoxiously as they were on the train, they mobbed the platform and continued to parade their display of ignorance and disregard in public.

I guess times have changed. I have never seen a group of white kids use the n-word so openly. Do you think they would have exhibited the same behavior if we were in Central Harlem or East New York?

Afterwards I felt bad for not speaking up. But the more and more I reflect on the whole incident, it was probably the best decision. They were inebriated and ignorant. I’m not sure how productive or destructive that interaction would have been. I simply had to show restraint for 10 minutes, imagine having to show that kind of self control for an entire lifetime.

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The downtown 1 train stopping at 96th street on the upper west side of Manhattan.

 

Giving Back

I was out celebrating with good friends the night before. We decided to meet up in the city for drinks and good music. I had a great time.

We joked around , partied and recited old rap lyrics, as the DJ spent hip-hop classics like Tribe Called Quest and Leader’s of the New School’s “Scenario” and “Slam” by Onyx. I felt like I had traveled back in time, to 1993.

As the night wound down, I realized that I had to get up in the morning to supervise three middle school basketball games.  It was a struggle to say the least. An hour subway commute from Harlem to  Brooklyn on a crisp Saturday morning is not exactly what one might call fantastic voyage.

I was running a little late because of typical weekend service in Brooklyn. No trains were available for several stops, so I had to take a shuttle to my final destination. Once I arrived at the school, I immediately began to set up. The gym was already stating to fill up with families and athletes from the other schools. The neighborhoods of Bushwick, East New York and Williamsburg had all converged on our gym in Crown Heights.

As the games played on, I finally relaxed and enjoyed the scene. A peace came over me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was home. Very few things bring me happiness like serving my people and my community. Mothers and fathers got an opportunity to watch their sons and daughters play basketball on a Saturday morning. The countless smiles, cheers and happy faces made me feel good. I guess this is important to me because even though I played high school and college athletics, I always wanted my family see me compete, but they never did. To look up in the crowd and see your mother cheering you on must feel awesome; I can only imagine.

African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.
African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Saturday mornings, children in Crown Heights can be out getting into who knows what. But not these kids, they are with us, being kids, they are safe, working in tandem with their peers and learning to be part of a team.

It was tough, just functioning on a few hours of sleep, but it is always worth it. The next Lebron James, Kobe Bryant or Lisa Leslie could be playing at our gym and I was responsible for giving them the safe space to realize their talents. Someone did it for me. So how could I not give back? Personally, I suck at basketball. Football and track were my sports, but I understand the importance of giving children the opportunity to discover their abilities. I get to do that. All it takes is a key,  a light switch and a cup of coffee.

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