Back when I was in elementary school my mom would sometimes ask “How you doing in school?” and I would reply “failing”. She’d then say “boy stop playing with me!” and move on to other things. When open school night would come and she’d receive my poor grades on the way home she’d say “I can’t believe you had me come up here to be embarrassed like that.” I’d think back to when I told her I was failing and wonder how it managed to not at all register but I knew better than to say anything.
Why was I failing? It was a combination of things. Every year it would be the same. We’d start a chapter, finish it, do the review and exercises in the back, take a practice test, and then a test. I’d follow along and be doing well. Then around the same time every year, test time, things would take a turn for the worse. “We’re behind” were words we often heard the teacher speak. There was no more finishing chapters, we skipped doing reviews as we’d just jump from lesson to lesson regardless of where we were in the previous lesson. Tests were lumped together; one test for multiple chapters. We experienced something like speed dating styled education. If you were a kid that struggled at any point, which I was, you got left behind, which I did. I couldn’t keep up.
When the work would blow by me I’d bring it home and look for help. My mother would say “It’s been a long time since I was in school that work done changed so much. Why don’t you ask your brother”. I’d ask my older brother who’d do things like squeeze his testicles till they formed a bubble in his clinched fist and say “Look at this!” or rub the crack of his ass and try to run his fingers under my nose so I didn’t bother. I’d try to figure it out alone by going over the problems I got wrong and analyzing the process till I figured out how the teacher got the answer he got. Sometimes I figured it out, sometimes I didn’t. Even when I did, when I went back to school the following day we’d have moved on to something else and I’d still be behind.
Even though I got poor grades, at the end of every school year my mother would get a letter saying I was being promoted to the next grade anyway thanks to what’s now referred to as “Social Promotion”. This resulted in me struggling more because rather than being a few chapters behind I was a whole grade. At some point my mother received a letter stating I should be placed in special education classes. It also mentioned she would be able to collect disability benefits as a result but my mother declined.
When I was around 10 or 11 years old my mother bought me the entire collection of Encyclopedia Britannica. All day I’d sit and read those books; the trials of Hercules, the Trojan war, Greek Mythology, Socrates, and Plato. I was really into mythology. I’d draw the sculptures of the Gods from the pictures in the books of the Encyclopedia. I was a real big fan of movies like Clash of the Titans and The Oddisee. In Junior High I used to cut school to sit on the staircase to the roof of my building, read my textbook, and do the exercises in the back. That’s the type of kid I was.
You know what they say about the lack of positive male role models for black boys in the hood? It’s true! I had no guidance . What was important to my brothers was that I knew how to fight and navigate the streets. Every now and then they’d pepper a “how you doing in school?” and the brother closest to me in age would fight me whenever he caught me cutting, but it was the behavior they endorsed. School was the right thing but it wasn’t the cool thing. There was a difference in the way they looked at kids that knew the street, knew the lingo, knew about drugs and guns and that life. If you weren’t like those kids you kind of felt like an outsider. Maybe it would’ve been different for me if I was a cousin that just came to visit and went home to something different but this was my environment. This was my family.
I remember when my mom found a 38. pistol my brother had stashed in the radiator and made him get rid of it. I remember when she found a brown bag full of crack viles underneath his mattress, put it in the sink, and ran water over it. I remember my brother introducing me to weed because, as he said, “I know you’re out there doing it but I know it’s safer if you do it with me” when I wasn’t. Nobody around me wore suits, went to college, or had aspirations to do anything other than make enough money to stay fresh, maybe get a fly car, and attract whorish women.
I wasn’t a bad kid, I didn’t get into trouble. My brother got into trouble and people felt like he needed to be saved so they tried to save him. In our old neighborhood our pastor, Pastor Eastmen, embraced him, tried to guide and save him. When we moved to Harlem his basketball coach at Boys Harbor tried to guide and save him. The Cops at the P.A.L tried to guide and save him. I wasn’t into sports, I wasn’t into church, and nobody tried to recruit me to either because nobody felt like I needed to be saved. I didn’t feel like I needed to be saved.
The first time my mother found out I cut school she beat me. By the hundredth time she’d say “Shawn is gonna do what Shawn is gonna do” and just leave me alone. When one of my oldest brothers was young and out of control she put him in job corps. When my other brother got his girlfriend pregnant at 16 my mother and sister banded together to push him through school to graduation. It’s not something that I like to think or accept but I often feel like my mother gave up on me, but maybe she didn’t. Maybe she knew I was different, maybe she felt I’d I’d figure it out.
All that was expected of me was that I finish school, get a good job, and move out of the house on my own. Seems simple, I wish it was.