In Defense of the Brilliant Black Kid Who’s Disruptive
I watched as a handsome kid in athletic gear gave high fives to his friends as they entered the classroom. His sneakers — with black and red bottoms — had words like “equality” sketched all over them.
The homeroom teacher, entering behind the students, asked me if I was the substitute reading teacher for the day. The kid in cool kicks echoed her questions, not mockingly but like a parrot. I’ve noticed that observant kids repeat people, and observant people are smart. Quick learners will repeat you, tucking the information away for later use, or maybe just to have it. This kid was bright, and I suspected from the self-assured way he greeted his classmates that he was well aware of it.
How the argument began, I’m not entirely sure. The teacher had a wary look from the start, as though bracing herself for an interaction with the kid. I remember him saying, ”I don’t have to follow your rules.” She told him that there were consequences for not following rules as there would be for anyone else. He then said, “Would you agree that most of the teachers in this school are racist?” He continued that he would stand up for himself, even if his classmates didn’t. Against what, I wasn’t sure.
It was then that I spoke up. I asked the student why he’d talk to a teacher like that. I also asked him if someone told him that he didn’t have to follow the rules. Naturally, he said he came up with that on his own. “Maybe teachers aren’t picking on you,” I told him. “Maybe it’s because we’ve all been sitting here for 10 minutes waiting to learn while you’ve been arguing with an adult.”
He didn’t say anything to that. The teacher gave me a thankful look and then began her lesson. Throughout the period, I noticed him sneaking glances at me, particularly after he answered questions. I was the rare young Black teacher, and maybe I reminded him of his mother or an aunt. There was suddenly an interest in impressing me. I think he wanted me to know he wasn’t dumb — though of course I already knew he was far from it.
Maybe he’ll become a lawyer like everyone thought I would. The image of the kid in a suit with his ‘equality’ sneakers is an amusing and heartwarming one.
Before I moved to my next classroom, I went up to him. “You did a good job for the rest of the period,” I said. “Keep it up. And by the way, I like your shoes.” He thanked me, and we went our separate ways.
Later, I spoke with another teacher about the day. I told her that I’d gotten so upset about the exchange because I remembered being that kid. There were definitely teachers who picked on me, but I was also the kid who would argue with teachers and give them a hard time. I knew exactly why that student was disrespectful because I used to be him.
She asked if anything made me change, and if so, that would be a helpful insight for the teachers on how to handle him. “Oh, I never changed,” I laughed. “I was like that all through middle school and high school. Then I went to a big university and realized no one cares what you know or what you don’t know. It’s good to be smart, but no one’s impressed by the asshole.”
Of course, I had some racist teachers growing up — and who knows, maybe there are racist teachers in this school — but at that moment, he was rude for the sake of it. He knew it, the teacher knew it, I knew it, and his silent classmates knew it.
“You know, you should tell him that,” the teacher said. “I don’t think anyone would believe you were like that as a kid. You should tell him what you told me. You never know what will get through to someone, and I can tell you, all of us here have tried to get through to him.”
I told her I would, but when I came back to find him after lunch, she told me he was in the principal’s office. “It’s pretty bad,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe another day.”
One day, maybe we’ll figure out what to do with the smart Black kid. At least we can rest assured that if he ever needs to stand up against an actual injustice, he will. Maybe he’ll become a lawyer like everyone thought I would, with his “equality” sneakers on. Or maybe he’ll figure out how to use his voice in some other powerful way.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking — but I sincerely believe the kid’s gonna be all right.