When was the last time you read a book? What was the last book you have read?” These are usually the first questions I ask my junior college students, particularly the athletes. Their most common response is, “Ms. P., I haven’t read a book since about 6th grade.”
How on earth does a student reach junior college without having read a book since middle school? It’s astonishing. Being a Black woman who appreciates education, it hurts me when I hear young Black people tell me they haven’t read. I understand people are tired of hearing about slavery, but its legacy is still felt in many Black communities in this country. This should matter to all of us.
I will not let the efforts of my ancestors who were beaten, tortured, or killed trying to write the alphabet, spell their name, or read the bible be in vain. I will not allow this stigma to endure. Many of my ancestors may not have had the credentials to teach and empower others. I have those credentials, and I am proud of them. I enter my classroom with a passion to educate, with the knowledge of an education system that has failed many students, particularly our athletes of color. To quote Maya Angelou, “I come as one, but I stand as 10,000.” I teach the world.
Let me tell you what happened this summer.
I enter my classroom with a passion to educate, with the knowledge of an education system that has failed many students."
I kicked a book during class. I did not want to do it. It sort of just happened during my visual explanation. I was teaching Introduction to Literature to a junior college class of freshman football players—a great group of young men from across the nation who were hungry to learn. One of my students asked me about the length of a short story that I had assigned.
The next day, I thought, I have to help them understand how this kind of questioning shines a bad light on them—that they only want easy or less challenging work. I want them to understand that they are supposed to grow, to become better, to not always look for “easy.”
I had them to chant: Condition. Practice. Play. Condition. Practice. Play. They had no clue what I was about to do. I picked up our literature book and put it back on the desk. Condition. Practice. Play. Their deep bass filled the classroom.
I picked up the book again. This time, I thumbed through the pages, then dropped this precious book on the floor without shame. I went through the process of looking like I was about to pick up the book. I moved my hands in a circular motion for them to keep the mantra going. In the same breath, I looked at the book on the floor, kicked it out of the classroom, and I shut the door.
And then I told them: This is what you have been doing to your education for a long time now. You have kicked your education to the point of almost no return. You have trained your bodies for hours to be in peak condition, but you have not trained your minds to learn.
There is a great deficiency in our education system toward people of color, and if these students are athletes, it is worse. Student athletes are often praised for their athleticism alone. I have seen many students who lack the confidence because they know there is an academic deficiency, and then they try to hide it. Once students realize they are not being judged because of what they are lacking, self-respect and confidence begin to take over. Students become more comfortable in their academic environment and want success—no longer just to please a coach or a parent. They want success for themselves. This motivates me.
Educators, we are here to challenge student athletes, to tell them learning will hurt, even though we know many will fight us. Somewhere along the way from Little League, to becoming the top player in junior high, to the star player in high school, they have been let down academically. Only a very few of the eight million high school athletes will compete at the professional or Olympic level, leading to a vicious cycle of disappointment.
Parents, teachers, and coaches, we are accountable to these young athletes, but so many of us have looked the other way. This must stop. We must remind these young men and women that it is possible to create change, but not without meeting academic challenges.
To student athletes everywhere, I beg you: Do not hide. Be honest. Allow us to help you. That’s what we’re here for. If you come across an instructor who will challenge you, then move a mountain or two. We want to cheer for you on the field, on the court, and in the classroom.
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2018 edition of Education Week as Why I Kicked a Book