Teach With A Ladder

She thought she was paying me a compliment.

“It’s amazing what you’ve done, considering where you started,” she said.

Oh Yes. She. Did.   

She, let’s call her Mrs. Smith, was an administrator at my alma mater. It’s been decades since that awkward moment between us but her insulting assumptions still make me angry. She didn’t know a thing about me, much less about where I “started.”  Yet she assessed the limited potential of the black student standing in front of her and felt that I, having exceeded her expectations, deserved a pat on the back.  It felt more like a slap in the face.

This sixty-second interaction happened the year I graduated from college in 19--let’s just say quite a few years ago. I have no doubt that Mrs. Smith considered herself enlightened, or “woke,” as we might say today. She celebrated my “surprising” achievement joyfully, oblivious to the demeaning nature her comment. She was a dangerous combination of limited knowledge and confidence. She spoke to me as if her awareness of racial disparities in education gave her the right to discern the limits of my potential. Ironically, it’s precisely what she thought she knew that made her a danger to me and any other students of color who might cross her path. The classroom is a sacred space. And a classroom culture built on toxic assumptions about what students can’t achieve is a soul-killing environment.  Thankfully, I never encountered Mrs. Smith in a classroom.

Sixteen years before Mrs. Smith revealed her patronizing perspective, Mrs. Wilson filled my soul with affirmation. Noting that I had solid reading skills in first grade, Mrs. Wilson sent me from room to room all over my small elementary school with a book and a note to present to each teacher.  My assignment was to read a paragraph from the Wizard of Oz. And their assignment was to respond enthusiastically. When I returned to my classroom, I was high on academic achievement. I just knew I was smart. That day I became an avid reader for life.  (And probably a teacher’s pet too. But that’s for another post!)

Ironically, Mrs. Wilson’s assumptions about me may not have been much different from those of that college administrator. “Implicit bias” wasn’t the buzzword that it is now in education circles. For all I know, the note I carried may have expressed her shock that this poor, black girl could read at all. I don’t think so, but I don’t really know.  What I do know is that Mrs. Wilson gave me a ladder to climb that day and challenged me to go for it. It’s hard to overstate the power of this moment in my life as a student. I approached future educational goals with the seeds of confidence planted in me that day at Riverview Elementary.

My experience with Mrs. Wilson inoculated me against the lowered expectations of well-meaning but under-informed educators like Mrs. Smith. Research statistics about racial disparities are not futures carved in stone. If I met Mrs. Wilson today I’d thank her. I don’t know what she thought about where I “started.” But she taught like I had unlimited potential. I choose to believe that she taught every student like they had unlimited potential. And if you’re a teacher, I hope that you teach that way too.

Leeann Shaw Younger has three children, one husband and a lot of opinions.  You can find a few of them at https://leeannshawyounger.com