“I’m Glad You’re My Child’s Teacher” by Torrey Maldonado
“I’m glad you’re my child’s teacher.”
A Black mom recently told me that on the same day that a white dad did. During my twenty years of teaching middle school, families and kids of all backgrounds have told me they’re glad I teach. As class ends, kids say, “I wish we had you for longer.” All of this puts an expectation on me. Families expect me to steer their kids the right way. Students expect our time together to be a joyride they don’t want to end as they learn what matters.
When people say they’re glad I teach, I feel put in a rare position because they don’t tell every teacher that. I’m also in a rare position since I’m a unicorn as a teacher. According to 2019 U.S. Department of Education statistics, Black males are about 2 percent of our nation’s teachers. The numbers are similar for Latino males. I’m both.
Middle school is a crossroads where kids choose who they’ll be. It’s a joyride as they try on different identities and get to experience where roads lead. A phrase they might hear is “Stay in your lane.” When I hear that, I wonder, Are all kids allowed to ride in the same lane? Are they tracked equally? Since kids are our future, what I’m really asking is, Where are we heading as a society? My new novel What Lane? helps kids and adults to discuss that.
In my middle school, I see what research shows. Kids of color are suspended more than white kids. And it isn’t just schools criminalizing kids—the media and law enforcement do it too. When I see kids in school unjustly detained like they’re trouble, I also see me. I was once a Black Latino boy wrongly suspended in a school district where there was a misperception of who I was. I still remember times I was put in detention for no reason. Outside the window, my classmates laughed and had fun, and I should’ve been in that lane with them. When we’re locked in different lanes than our white peers, we’re steered to a different place. Sadly, a lot of my peers ended up in jail, in coffins, or with other tragic ends.
A Newtonian law says, “An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon.” What’s an educator’s responsibility to act upon the criminalization of kids? I can’t change how teachers treated me in the past, but now, as a teacher and writer, I can change how I treat and portray kids. What Lane? encourages better treatment and representation. It promotes needed conversations. In it, we see young people forced to deal with the aforementioned issues—racial profiling and police brutality and racism in its obvious and nuanced expressions—and how those experiences force them into one lane. Yet we also hear conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and allyship and how young people are working to make our world better.
Each day I ask myself how I can assist kids on their journeys—and that means more than helping them excel academically. Because if my students can’t figure out which lanes to avoid, who to bypass, who they might want to ask for assistance, and who to aid on their journeys, then what? We need to talk with kids to help steer them into a great future, and not to dead ends.
Some say those are “tough” topics. Many educators know that’s false—they’re tough for most adults. For most kids, they’re just topics. Kids tend to have honest conversations, get over it, and quickly interact as good as best friends. It’s mostly adults who don’t discuss and keep the momentum of divides going.
Booker T. Washington said, “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.” We need to swerve into the same lane, be on common ground, and uplift each other. We need more stories where more kids feel represented. We need to talk about the stuff holding us back. That’s what What Lane? is about. I hope it’s a conversation starter and tool for kids and adults. When we hold a book, we control the pace that the page turns. So What Lane? lets readers feel a sense of control over these conversations, and they can manage what may be tough at their own pace.
Over my twenty years of teaching, families and kids have said they’re glad I teach. Now my hope is they’re glad my books are in their school. Recently a teacher described What Lane? in three words: riveting, relevant, relatable. I hope readers feel the same and that reading it is a joyride they don’t want to end that is also meaningful.
Torrey Maldonado, the author of the critically acclaimed Tight and Secret Saturdays, has taught in Brooklyn, New York, for twenty years, where he was born and raised. His books reflect his students’ and his experiences. His latest novel, What Lane?, will be released on April 14, 2020. Learn more at torreymaldonado.com. Follow him: @torreymaldonado #torreymaldonado