I remember teaching a particularly challenging group of kids. After a tough class, one of my students told me I was racist. I don’t remember the specific context of his remarks, but I do remember my response. “If I were racist, would I teach at this school?” Really. That’s what I said. That was really my response to this child. A response that invalidated his feelings. A response to a child who figured out that the school was built to teach him that his life isn’t as important as his White peers. “I can’t be racist. I teach at a mostly Black school.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand that kids say things they don’t always understand. Maybe in that moment I wasn’t being racist, but just being his teacher. But maybe, just maybe, I was. Maybe he wasn’t only referring to me as racist, but was upset over his social studies lesson earlier in the day. Maybe he was upset that all of the images in his textbook were of White kids, except for the one, “token Black.” I don’t know. I’m not here to recall the specific events from a specific incident.
But then it got me thinking.
Have I used the “color-blind” approach when teaching my kids? Have I ignored their backgrounds, silenced their voices, or made judgements on them or their families based on the color of their skin? Maybe I have.
I remember my first year of teaching. I had a 3rd grade general music class that pushed me to my limits as a first year teacher. To be fair, I only saw them once a week, and sometimes even less than that. As a teacher, something I pride myself on is my ability to learn my students' names. In this class however, I didn’t know most of their names. Today, I couldn’t tell you a single child’s name from that room. They were names that weren’t common. Names that I had never seen before. And let me tell you, they knew I didn’t know their names. I didn’t take the time to learn the one thing that was most important to them because it was different from the names I was used to. Back then I would have told you I didn’t learn them because “I just couldn’t remember them for some reason.” Now I will tell you that it just wasn’t at the top of my priority list. It would have required too much effort. And they knew it.
I remember my second year of teaching at a new school. I had done a unit on film music that culminated in us watching a Charlie Chaplin silent film, “The Kid.” The only Black person in the entire film is a little Black boy who delivers flowers to the rich White people. During that short scene, one of my students looked at me and said, “Of course the Black person is the servant for the White people.” To which I replied, “Yeah, I know. Unfortunately that’s how it was back then.”
“Back then.” That’s how it was back then. What a terrible response. I am certain that she saw right through that white-washed answer. This was 2017. After Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Philando Castille. But this was music class-- we don’t TALK about race here! We don’t TALK about WHY the little boy in the movie was depicted that way. We don’t talk about WHY there aren’t ANY OTHER Black actors or actresses in that movie or ANY OTHER silent film I showed them. After all, if I were racist, would I teach in this school!? I still think back to that terrible response and what it taught that particular student in that moment.
I remember when a fellow teacher was called racist in an email from an unhappy parent. She was distraught. I came to her defense, “How does this student struggling in class make you a racist?” and “I can’t believe they would say that!” and "Why do parents always have to assume we are racist?" I didn’t think that maybe, just maybe, there was a deeper reason for that parent’s reaction. I didn’t challenge her on it. I didn’t encourage her to examine why that accusation was made. I just comforted her. Like a good White person should.
I remember teaching at my second school and struggling to connect with my middle school students for various reasons. The school was predominantly Black and Latinx. It was 2016. Donald Trump had just been elected President. It felt like the air had been sucked out of the school. I didn’t talk about it with them. I didn’t mention it. I felt their sadness, fear, and worry, but I didn’t take that moment to connect with them on how they were feeling.
I ended up switching schools that year for reasons that go beyond this blog post, but when I think back to my short six months there, the only kids I remember are the White kids. My fondest memories of teaching there are with the White kids. Why is that?
I remember my first year of teaching when a fellow teacher was having trouble with another student and asked me to sit in on their parent meeting. I hadn’t really had issues with this particular student, but still taught the class, so I joined her. I remember feeling intimidated by his Black parents. I was afraid of them, not because I was a first year teacher and still learning the ropes, but because their Blackness intimidated me. I remember sitting across the table from them and not being totally honest-- that I personally hadn’t experienced any issues with their son. I failed him that day.
I remember trying to find examples of Black and Brown actors, dancers, and singers to show my kids and struggling to do so. We watched short examples of opera and I could only find one Black opera singer. A tenor. When I asked my kids what their favorite voice part was, an overwhelming majority said, “The one with the Black singer.”
They notice. I noticed that they noticed. Now I notice too.
I remember showing my middle school students the dance documentary, First Position, and how engaged they were anytime the Black dancer, Michaela DePrince, came on the screen. I remember seeing their eyes light up when they saw her overcome the odds and become a professional ballerina. But let’s be clear-- she overcame the odds because she is Black.
I remember moving to Georgia and my friends and family members asking me if I was going to look for a job at a “better school.” I didn’t explain that I was actually leaving a great school with great kids. I let them go on thinking that I was at a “bad school.” I let them continue to have a negative perception of my Black kids.
But at the same time, I remember instances where I stood up for my kids.
I remember standing up for our best 7th grade trumpet player when they tried to take him out of an after-school activity because he talked “too much.” (He was a 7th grade boy… they all talk too much.)
I remember standing up for our best 5th grade trumpet player who wasn’t going to be invited to a special program because she was a “behavior problem.”
I remember when I stopped yelling at kids for shouting, “OOOOH” after their friend did something they thought was awesome or for dancing to a song they like when I turned on the music.
I remember how engaged my kids were when we listened to the trap remix of The Nutcracker.
I remember how excited they were to write their own raps.
I remember when I let my middle school students use their cell phones for backing tracks and every single kid was using their phone in a productive way.
I remember when I told three of my girls that their rap won the Little Kids Rock Songwriting contest. (They cried, by the way.)
I remember when I learned just how much I still have to learn.
These are just the stories I remember. The moments in time when my Whiteness got in the way that have stuck in my brain. I have come so far, and yet I have so far to go. What if I had learned my student’s names in that general music class? What if I had discussed race in the silent film? What if I had talked to my student about why he thought I was racist? What if I had challenged my colleague on that email? What if I had talked to my students about how they were feeling after Trump won? These are just the moments I remember. How many moments have I let pass me by?
And I am supposed to be one of the “good” ones.
The point is, we can ALL do better. We MUST do better.
Hi! I am Nicole Guimaraes. I'm a K-2 music teacher in Falls Church City, VA. I've got an amazing husband and a fabulous dog who keep me busy. If I'm not teaching or walking my dog, you can probably find me at the gym!