I could not have been more than 10 years old, but I noticed a strange pattern in my young life.
“Daddy, why are there so many white people in this world?” My father stopped cold, and I could see sudden panic in his facial expression.
My family had chosen our neighborhood because of the academic record of its public schools and, as a result, I attended schools that were 92 percent or more white and only about 2 percent black. Back then my neighborhood seemed like the whole world—and to me, the whole world was white.
My father paused, likely reflecting on his vastly different childhood growing up in Barbados. “It only seems that way because you live here,” he explained. “There’s an entire continent of people that look just like us.”
My comment had opened up a glaring hole in my first-class education. Whether it was because of questions about my hair or curious glances during lessons about slavery, I had learned the rest of the world was white and I was not.
By contrast, my middle school students in Bushwick live in a completely different world: All of them are black or Hispanic, and the vast majority is low-income.
Often I see the power in their sameness. During grade-wide assemblies, our scholars call on one another to remember where they came from and remember why they are here. At school dances, scholars enjoy songs with cultural similarity and mutual understanding. In Brooklyn, my students are united by slight differences in culture but uniformity in skin color and class—something that I never experienced as a child.
This is not how the world looks, however. The universities that my students will attend will not likely be majority black and brown. Their colleagues will not come from the same neighborhoods as them. I fear the very strengths of my school might become gap-widening weaknesses for my scholars. The current education options are clearly not acceptable if we want to create a generation of scholars, rather than a few success stories here and there.
Next year Bushwick Middle has two students heading to Brooklyn Tech. I hope to see these bright students combining the confidence and self-reflection developed during middle school with the academic rigor and lessons inherent in diversity from their prestigious high school. At a time when more than half of their low-income, minority peers are not graduating high school, our scholars require the power from both of these experiences to be prepared for the road ahead.
Only time will tell, but I am confident I will see the names of two particular Bushwick Middle scholars headed to esteemed universities in four years, full of pride in both their sameness and their difference and miles ahead of me in their self-identity and understanding of the world.
Tamara Gilkes is a 2012 School Reform Blogging Fellow for NYCAN. She teaches sixth- and seventh-grade science at Achievement First Bushwick Middle School. Outside of the classroom, Tamara advocates with Educators 4 Excellence to include teachers in school policy decisions. She previously served as a Teach for America corps member in the South Bronx.