Opinion

Reflections on Black History Month

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By Bethany Mackingtee

This winter, students across the country celebrated Black History Month. They read books by black authors, wrote research papers on civil rights activists, memorized Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, or watched videos about the Underground Railroad.

And as we learn about the struggle of the past, we’ll begin to recognize it in our own present. These lessons are anything but history.

My students in Jacksonville were only in middle school, but they were well aware of the prejudices they faced. Back in 2012, we followed the Trayvon Martin case very closely – we were less than two hours from where the tragedy took place.

Every morning, as we watched CNN Student News, my kids would turn to me and say: “Ms. Mackingtee, why did they get away with that? How could people be so cruel? How could they let a man go free?”

Little did they know, explaining such an ugly reality challenged me as much as it did them.

But despite the injustice that surrounded my kids, there were still plenty of reasons to hope. At our Friday Celebrations and 6th Grade Monday Morning Meetings, we talked about the stereotypes we faced and ways to battle them.

During the high school admissions process, one of my students, Jewel, looked at me and said, “Ms. Mackingtee, one day I’m going to prove everyone wrong. I’m going to go to Episcopal so that one day I can be a lawyer.”

It is these types of comments that ignite my passion for this work. I never planned on becoming a teacher – my mom and her siblings were all educators, and it was never a profession I saw myself in. But during my time at SMU, I tutored a student named Maria who asked me to help her fill out college applications. As we were filling in her biographical information, she mentioned that her ACT score was a 17. I immediately paused, because I knew what that score meant for Maria and her future.

It was this moment that made me realize why so many of my family members were educators. It was their key to get out of Kashmere Gardens in Houston, one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city. My mom and her siblings did not teach because it was a job, they taught because they wanted more students in Houston schools to have the same opportunity they had to go to college. I realized there was nothing more meaningful I could do with my own privilege.

We have a long way to go as a country before we truly achieve justice for all. To fix the systemic oppression that has created the gross inequality of the present will take the hard, dedicated work of countless leaders and change-makers – many who have experienced it first-hand, others who bear witness to it from further away. We must work toward these long-term changes as well as the immediate, urgent opportunities to change the way our students view themselves and their futures.

As teachers, we can play a central role in this. Every day, we can remind our kids that their thoughts, ideas, identities and opinions are important. We can share our own stories so that when our kids look to the front of the room, they see a little bit of themselves reflected back. We can remind them that they matter, that they always have and that they always will.

Bethany Mackingtee is a 2012 alum of SMU and works for Teach For America-Jacksonville.

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