My son is tall for his age. In fact, at 8, he looks 10 or 11. He is broad shouldered, skinny, but like so many other Black boys his age, muscular and six-packed. Gap toothed. He is so shy that I often have to remind him to look at adults in the eye who greet him in my presence. It is only in his silliness that his real age is often revealed. In our neighborhood, he has been one of two, maybe three other Black children in his school. After I moved him to a neighborhood alternative school, he was the only Black child in the school of 250. That is not completely true: My neighborhood, an old arts community now gentrified with million dollar triplexes and rents few can afford in a Montreal economy, has a good share of bright Black folk—folks who, back home, would easily pass the paper bag test and perhaps, pass completely. Here, there are generations of light, mixed-race parents who have married lighter or married so blonde, their children are signified Black only by a kind of center-crown kink every Black mother knows. My ex-husband is a deep, bronze brown, and so my children—many hues darker than my skin– are occasionally mistaken as not my own.
In Ade’s first year, I did not think much about the absence of other children like him in his school. After all, I am biracial myself and grew up, for large portions of my childhood, with my white mother who had moved home to her rural hometown to find support in her family as a single mother. My elementary school in central Pennsylvania was overwhelmingly white, a bit “backwater,” and a bit of distance from a fundamental Christianess that I associate with the deep south. I was called “nigger” only once as a child. I was 7 or 8 and proceeded to squarely beat the little boy’s behind on the path home to my grandmother’s house. The name-caller turned out to be a first cousin, born out of wedlock to my mother’s brother when he was a teenager in the town’s only high school. He died on his 18th birthday, shortly after my uncle acknowledged this bastard child. Celebrating his post-graduation from our town’s only high school with a group of archetypal mullet wearing, Metallica tee-shirt sporting peers, he overdosed on inhalants, themselves emblems describing the wastelands of rusting metal of still-standing abandoned factories, bath salts, and desolation of a small American town that once was. I turned out okay and so, expected Ade to fare at least as well.
In his second year of his alternative public school, I began to worry. I sensed a heaviness in him and had long noticed his loss of love for books, a treasure we had shared since he had body fat and was my only child. He became tight-lipped about what happened in class. I watched him closely in his interactions with his teacher, who he was with for his second year given the tiering of classes in many alternative schools. He greeted her like most other adults he did not know well, with a bit of a slump, his forehead leaning into towards my chest before I pushed him backwards to offer a necessary, “Bonjour.” He was shy, after all, I reasoned silently. In this second year, his self-denigrations–occasional in his previous year–, intensified, first with words, then with actions. One Sunday morning, I reprimanded him for a normal multi-siblinged transgression, no more or less harshly than before; he reached for a butcher knife, held it against his neck and through thick, throaty tears, proclaimed that he wanted to kill himself. I was stunned at this desperation. He, who had witnessed the death of beloved family members, confidently scattered their ashes, and before-perceived my godliest of grief, knew–even at 7– the weight of death.
Afterwards, I began to pay closer attention and requested a meeting with his teacher. His first bulletin was sent home, and I took note of the wide array of negative comments contained in its pages. Could he really be this problematic to his teacher? I, like most Black mothers, pulled him aside sternly and with hubris, said something about tomorrow and beating his behind into it if my parent-teacher conference revealed a child who was living a split life between home and school. I was wrong about my alliance. I was certainly wrong about my words. I was wrong that I did not, in that moment, lean in with love and ask him to do, what we now call, “heart speech.”
In the two months following, his teacher and I had difficulty finding time to meet: I emailed some dates and times; she responded with impossibilities and with times that were inconvenient for me. Christmas vacation came and went. In hindsight, I know now that the time and distance made Ade’s days harder and longer and served only to increase the tension and distrust between myself and his teacher. When we finally met—a morning meeting in which she finally suggested meeting while the other students were engaged in self-directed learning–, my son entered his class and began, almost immediately, to sob. In those minutes following, I faced a child who felt worthless, devastated, helpless. I quietly took him by the arm and led him out of class.
I ended up homeschooling Ade for a few months following the meeting with his teacher that never happened. I was certain that day in his classroom, that something was deeply amiss. In the weeks following, he was able to articulate what was wrong: He felt that his teacher did not like him, did not want him in class, and told me he felt singled out, harshly reprimanded in front of his peers. He repeated these things, slumped in his seat, but with his eyes directly forward, to the principal of his school one morning after I led him out of class. I was surprised when he did this. I had not known that his principal, a detached, 3-inch heel wearing long-haired 30-something blond, would directly address Ade before we came into the meeting, but had told him earlier that morning that he could say whatever was in his heart, that I would have his back and love him regardless. Prior to our meeting, I had requested a change of educator. Surely, his certain words would carry weight, I thought.
Her response, sent by email in French a few days later, was to demand reintegration into the same classroom. She assured me that a new educator was not possible so late in the school year and that my failure to reintegrate my son would mean the loss of his place at the well-coveted alternative school for the next fall. When I named the cruelty of her response, she insisted, importantly, that I had a “choice” to enroll him in my neighborhood school. “By law,” she told me in French, “you have a choice to use the school that falls into your neighborhood quadrant. You have that right.” Ultimately, I met her choice by adjusting my life until the end of Ade’s school year. I “re-integrated” him by sitting in the corner of his classroom quietly for a few weeks, then moved my seat to the hallway outside his classroom door when I was asked to leave the classroom. When I was asked to move out of the hallway, I sat in the school lobby until summer vacation arrived.
Over the months since I removed my son from his alternative school, I have thought again and again about our meeting with his principal in which she interviewed my son. I am an educator who has, for the last decade, worked both in classrooms and in an administrative position. It is unfathomable that I would respond, in kind, to a parent and any child who expressed such discomfort with an educator under my tenure. I was also born and raised in the heart of Black America, and so, I have imagined, on a number of occasions, the different, soft-certain response this principal would have tendered had a petite, long-haired, blue-eyed girl faced her with her fears that day.
Yet, any American living in Canada hears, in ardent repetition, its narrative of historical racelessness, of its racial history so distinct from the United States. In its admonishments—both formal and informal—to keep ones American race biases at bay, as well as its absence of recorded history, Canada has sweetened itself free of structural racism. With such race neutrality as part of its national project and social imaginary, how then, can this country’s legacy of racism be felt so heavily—so existentially–, in ways that are akin to its bordering neighbor? This is my starting point.