A personal reflection after thirteen months since George Floyd’s murder

After the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, 2020, the United States rightfully began a much deeper investigation, discussion, and reckoning on race in America (particularly in relation to Black Americans). Widespread protests demanded attention to issues of equity and racial justice, which dominated news coverage and my own (albeit limited) social media experience. I remember supporting the protests but finding a lot of the social media chatter to be problematic; I noted a lot of what I called “they-ism”, of people blaming others (the police, hard-line right-wing groups, Antifa, other groups) as the source of problems. There should be accountability for groups, but I felt a lot of accusing without a lot of self-reflection, especially focused on what actions individuals might do in order to improve the lives of disadvantaged Black Americans. As part of my own reflections, around a month after George Floyd’s murder I wanted to take Juneteenth, a date to recognize the legal end of slavery in America. In the year since, I’ve questioned and come to the conclusion that I probably shouldn’t be appropriating a day (and now a federal holiday) about Black freedom and liberation for my own reflection, so I’ve waited a few days. Still, it’s about a year after my own pledge to review and assess my personal progress in promoting equity for the disadvantaged (and disproportionately Black) Americans in my own work.

This is poignant to me because, for the past decade and a half, I have worked in independent schools that have overwhelmingly catered to the privileged (and thus, overwhelmingly catered to White families and White students). The town I own a house in, a lovely town a walking distance from a school where I used to work before taking my current job, is in an overwhelmingly White neighborhood. It’s not easy to give all of these things up; I have a career in an industry that does have to consider those with wealth and means (who are primarily White) in order to attract and keep students but also to raise funds and money, and I do not intend on giving up my career or starting from square one. I enjoy our house, and I enjoy our neighbors in Irvington, and I do not want to sell that house. But rather than being cognizant about these things and having the ability to not reflect on it (“opting out”, as I think it has been called), I feel I need to reflect.

NOTE: My reflection doesn’t necessarily go in one direction.

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This is a little bit of a challenge, because even though these posts are never going to be read that much or by a greater number of people, I don’t want to start giving away information about people on the internet to strangers, let alone without their consent. Additionally, I really don’t want this to be a list of how virtuous I am and how much I personally am doing to advance the cause of equity, nor is this to make myself feel like a good person. So, this will be a little vague at times.

I took a job working at a military school for boys. It’s a very good school, but the first matter I noted is that the students who attend this school are very different from traditional independent school students. In my first meeting with the Superintendent, he noted that a very high proportion of our students (he noted well over 50%) come from non-traditional families, and that usually means there is an absence of a father in the family. There is a common trope among faculty and staff, although I haven’t determined if this is fully true or not, that in these cases sons without father figures can become a handful for working mothers or working aunts or working caretakers, and then the parent sends them off to military school. While I cannot confirm for sure if that is correct or not, I do think it is true. I don’t know if that number is exactly correct, but in my rather limited research that seems feasible. There is diversity among the student body, and I would say that the Black students at the school are probably more likely to be from non-traditional families and more likely to have an absence of a father. That is not common to them all, but more common.

One of the areas where I am frustrated is that I see a number of problems and don’t necessarily have the ready solutions. For example, I have noted that student’s math progress can vary greatly by students, and it is a lot more common for our Black students to need remedial math than other students. I do consider how to best address this issue, and considering how to give these students (Black or not) additional time in a math classroom. I struggle with this some, because that means they likely will not have the same opportunities for elective and other classes. Jonathan Kozol, in one of his books, noted that this was a common problem for Black students and that while White and wealthier students commonly would have a Country Day School style of the curriculum where they learn how to negotiate and use the information to their advantage, Black students are stuck in remedial classes as they learn rules and adhere to authority. There’s little negotiation there. I have dealt with comments and perceptions and realities of racist actions this year, and hopefully have addressed them appropriately. But it feels really disjointed and it certainly does not always fit into an easy narrative.

That has led me to an interesting place while working at a military school. Military schools, at their best, aim to be a meritocracy. I am not saying our school has accomplished that, but I think it is in our DNA to aim to do that, and we probably do better than average. So there is very little privilege explicitly taught or tolerated; there are still examples of students trying to get away with things or influencing things, but less of that than I have seen or experienced in other schools. This has been part of my own thought process as I have started to think less about raising up the very disadvantaged as the sole key to equity but rather to both raise up the disadvantaged and ensure the advantaged are held accountable too.

So to be right now, this is two-fold. I want to help those who need it (who are disproportionately Black). But I think it is just as important to hold those who have means and privilege accountable; that way the privilege gap is closing because a select few who can pressure people to give their child extra time, extra attention, or even ask about grades or demand grades change (I did get that this year!) cannot make it so that others, who are playing the game fairly, really struggle to key up. In regards to specific issues of race, I can see a few instances where I have tried to find a solution to a problem, but I am so far from finding the solution to THE Problem. But, as I have reflected, my goal is to reflect on the day-to-day problems of inequity, prejudice, and even racism so that the problem will gradually become less formidable. It may always be there, but I want to chip away at it.

There’s more that I probably should fill out here; this is an incomplete piece of writing. But I hope and expect to come back to the topic.

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John Baker

Teacher, administrator, and educator trying to make a little bit of sense of the world.