The smoke was thick. I watched it until it was no longer visible. The smoke came from the exhaust pipe of my father's used Grand Marquis as he drove away leaving me in this unfamiliar place...where no one looked like me...talked like me...walked like me...or smiled at me. It was not...for...me. I knew this was not a place where I belonged, yet it was there that I craved a sense of belonging. It was not a place that reflected my culture, yet, I wanted to be a part of its culture. It was not a place where I felt loved, though I wanted to be loved...and not just loved, but accepted.
I walked up the Grand Hill and marveled at the beautiful, yet stoic scene. I hadn't ever seen anything like it. I came from streets in Harlem, NYC, in the 80s often described as mean streets filled with skyrocketing crime...but still...I always felt safe on those streets. This place was different...it was known as one of the safest parts of New York City, in Riverdale, N.Y., however…here…I DID NOT...FEEL...SAFE.
I opened the tall, massive, and heavy wood door that was the quality of African Blackwood, at $100 per board foot. The wood was African and belonged, but my African skin did not belong. Ironically, I can't say that I had ever felt African, or that I had ever felt American...but there, I proudly identified as an African-American, defending and reclaiming my space in that place. And they...they were white…white, rich, and affluent...I thought to myself...Why did my parents leave me here? I shut the African door and ran down to the edge of the street. I looked down the road hoping to see my Dad making a U-turn. Hoping he was coming back... At that moment, I noticed my cheek felt cold and crusted. So distracted by my inner turmoil, I hadn't noticed the tears streaming down my face. My head dropped...and my heart was heavy. I would never forgive them...How could they leave me here? Why did they enroll me in social and cultural calamity?
When my Dad dropped me off, he said, “Remember, you are brilliant and amazing, no matter what. Don't ever forget that...you are strong and you will thrive wherever you are. You hear me...”. I heard him…but I am sure I wasn't listening...The high school campus proved to be where I advanced academically, but it was where I regressed culturally, emotionally, and socially...was it worth it?
As a 17-year educator who served students in many roles, teacher, principal and now, principal coach in a district of more than 8,000 students, I know firsthand how school-building culture creation is intentional. Did they intentionally want me to feel isolated and lack a sense of belonging in their community? I am unsure. Perhaps my comfort was not the focus, rather the comfort of the majority, the dominant group, of which I was not a part of.
As a researcher, I hope to build a greater knowledge base around ways to engage school building leaders with creating communities anchored in anti-racist pedagogy, policies and practices, where students are the center of, and help design their curriculum, instruction and assessment. My motivation is anchored in my experiences, as even today, I am still clouded by the smoke from that place, and the exhaust pipe…yet I am now the parent…who is willing to drop off the child, in the place with the massive African door...with the hope that my daughter will feel like her beautiful Afro-Caribbean-American skin belongs. “Remember sweetheart, you are brilliant and amazing, no matter what. Don't ever forget that...you are strong and you will thrive wherever you are. You hear me...”. I hope she will be listening…