My daughter came home today with a ring full of math flashcards and a set of instructions about how we could help her memorize these sets of the simple formulas. According to state frameworks, she has to be able to answer these basic equations (9+0=9, 1+6=7, etc.) immediately without thinking or else she receives some kind of failing score on a report somewhere. I’m not sure how I feel about this. She’s in first grade and she loves school, and at the same time, I can see that she’s already sensing what a struggle learning is for her. Given her history of in utero substance abuse, we’ve always known that she would likely have some learning disabilities, or at the very least some significant delays. She spent all of her first few years in Early Intervention before getting transferred to a Special Eduction Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at age three. The IEP is supposed to provide her greater access to the curriculum and development, and I wonder how it works in tandem with her race. At what point will the stigma of being labeled a Special Education student coincide with what study after study shows are the lowered expectations of her race?
She has an amazing teachers this year; whenever neighbors hear her name, they ask, “Who do you know that you ended up with the best of the best?” The teacher is also black, and she’s doing wonderful things with our daughter, following suit with a white teacher last year who did just about everything an educator can do to show a young black girl that she is worthy of the same expectations and education as the white kids that surround her. And I still wonder if it will be enough.
We do what we can at home. I insist that my husband and I follow Carol S. Dweck’s work on “The Perils and Promises of Praise,” cheering our daughter’s effort in relation to achievement rather than the achievement alone. In the past two months, she’s made tremendous strides in her reading, and I am constantly telling her, “You’ve been working so hard with your reading, and look at how it’s paid off!” She often beams with joy, and I’m hopeful that she’s making the connection between hard work and success, even if the latter doesn’t necessarily mean “the best.” Of course these gains have come as part of educational interventions. She gets pulled out of her classroom environment for 30 minutes a day to build up these skills. Our son is almost surpassing her at sixteen months her junior, and I can see her getting frustrated when he sounds out complicated words with ease. I wonder how often this happens at school for her. How often does she see the other children, the other white children, expending limited effort to reach a point that requires tremendous concentration and effort on her part? Not that there aren’t white children who struggle right along with her of course; they are just one of many though so they fade into individuality in a way my daughter never will in this school system.
We do our best to convey to her that she is perfect just as she is, no matter how hard she has to work at certain things. We tell her that some kids can’t immediately identify a key change in a Broadway ballad like she can, but when the ring full of dozens of equations shows up in an envelope, and I’m making a daily reminder on my phone to spend ten minutes on math, it all sometimes feels so insurmountable. It feels so inevitable that she will become disheartened with the systems that are working against her. I suppose that I too know it’s inevitable that that will happen, and I’m just hopeful that I’m doing the most I can to prepare her for that realization. We all reach that point where we understand that life is inherently unfair; I just hope she doesn’t reach that point too soon.