Part of a year-long series, presented by The American and the Brown School at Washington University, on changing the narratives and outcomes of young black males in St. Louis.
I will never forget what my Riverview Gardens elementary principal, Denis Dorsey, told my parents. He told my parents that I wasn’t smart enough for college. I didn’t have what it took, he said.
I was in the second grade, and I had already developed a healthy dislike for school. Sure, I wasn’t a model student. I flunked the third grade, and I was suspended several times for fighting. However, despite my downfalls, I didn’t deserve to be written off. New studies suggest black students are disciplined and removed from class at a higher rate than white students, ultimately hindering the quality of their education.
For a while, I believed this principal. Although I left elementary school, I internalized someone else’s negative vision of me. Researchers have identified systematic patterns in teacher bias and expectations for black male students. Statistics suggest non-black teachers typically have lower academic expectations for their black students.
In middle school, I kept to the tradition of fighting and disturbing the class. Believing I was a better candidate for special education than for regular classes work, my teachers suggested I enter the special education program.
Who could argue? I was not an exceptional student. I was a class clown, a disruptor, and a majority of the black males in the school were enrolled in the program anyway. Being smart and educated wasn’t really the cool thing, and I wanted to be with my friends.
High school was much of the same – until I realized I was in a game and I was losing. I attended McCluer North High School, a Gold Star school at the time. However, underneath the cloak of a great school, there were two systems at play, two tracks: students who were being prepared for college and students who had no chance.
I wanted to go off to college and play football. However, my classes were a joke. I took easy classes, nothing challenging. On test days, the special education teacher stood beside me and read the answers. It is no secret that black male students are less likely to have college prep coursework than white students. While my white classmates enjoyed the luxury of attending college-ready classes – including math, science and writing – I attended an education desert. I received educational substance with no fundamental value.
By my junior year, I refused any help. It was clear: the special education program did nothing more than handicap my future, and I knew it. So I worked to teach myself. I attempted to excel in the classes I attended and managed to graduate with a C average. It was the generosity of famous lawyer and activist Margaret Wilson Bush that changed my life.
She afforded 40 students scholarships the opportunity to attend one of the oldest black colleges in America, Talladega College. It was at this historically black college that a humanities professor by the name of James White graded my first paper. After class, he inquired if I would speak with him.
I went to his office, exchanged pleasantries and sat down. Dr. White looked me in the eyes and said, “Son, you’re brilliant. Your writing skills are horrible, but you understand complex concepts.” He said, “The system failed you. However, we will help you.” I believed him.
After graduating college, I committed myself to reading, writing and speaking every day for six hours. It took 12 years of overcoming academic hardships to undo the lack of preparation I received during my earlier years. The drive to work hard and ignore the negative judgments of my earlier educators began to pay large dividends.
Last year, I published my first op-ed article on CNN. A month later, I was interviewed by Headline News about ethnicity and its influence on policing. After a year of research with Sean Joe, assistant dean of the Brown School at Washington University, I was awarded the Danforth Scholarship to attend Washington University to attain a master’s in social work with a concentration in social and economic development and policy writing.
I overcame, but many did not. It is no secret: for young black boys, the education system can often work against them. The school-to-prison pipeline implies a powerful relationship between minority young men, suspension and incarceration. In order for other young black boys to have a chance, we must first identify schools that participate in such practices. We must also make changes in the methods of in-class punishment while working to reduce suspensions.
We don’t need any more educators telling young black boys who haven’t even been given a chance that they don’t have what it takes to succeed.
Luther O. Tyus is a graduate research assistant in the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as an eight-year veteran of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and a certified POST police instructor.
“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.