Colonists

My favorite person at the charter school was the janitor, Davis Green.

Davis was the only adult in the school building that went by his first name. With Davis, it was never “Mr. Green,” It was always Mr. Davis.

Mr. Davis was well into his seventies, with a dark complexion, graying hair, slight build, stooped posture, a smoker’s cough, and a deep, southern drawl.

Every afternoon, Mr. Davis would shuffle into my classroom to empty the trash, and every afternoon I would greet him with my midwestern soprano – “How are ya today, Mr. Davis?”

And every afternoon, Mr. Davis would tell me exactly how he was.

Sometimes, he’d tell me how he felt about the weather. “It’s too damn cold outside,” he’d tell me with a cough. “I don’t have time for this shit.”

Sometimes, he’d tell me about his health in great detail. “I’m sick. I’ve got this cough that just won’t go away and my back is hurting, and they’re asking me to move all those boxes off the loading dock!”

Sometimes, he’d tell me how he felt about things he overheard or saw during the school day. “That little Kevin down in Ms. Isaac’s class? Can you believe what he did? Back in my day, we would never disrespect teachers like that. We wouldn’t disrespect ANYONE like that.”

And sometimes, he’d tell me about what it was like attending my charter school in the late 40’s and 50’s before desegregation, back when the building housed a traditional public neighborhood school for children of color. 

Mr. Davis always spoke with so much joy about our school building. “This is MY school,” he would say. “I went to this school as a kid… and this was the best school in the whole city. My brothers and sisters went to this school, and my auntie was a school teacher, and we would have so much fun here. It wasn’t like it is now, we were all a family back then.” Mr. Davis had a deep sense of pride and emotional connection to our building, and he demonstrated his pride in the time that he spent caring for it. Mr. Davis would arrive every morning around 5:30, and wouldn’t leave until everyone had gone home well after 7 p.m., when he would walk home to his house a few blocks away. He and his family had lived in the neighborhood all of his life, and the building that my charter was housed in had been a fixture in his life for all of his seventy-odd years.

I loved Mr. Davis’s candid honesty. Juxtaposed against an administration so keen to maintain the facade of being a “high-performing charter,” Mr. Davis’s stories about his childhood felt refreshing – Mr. Davis felt real.

I feel sad when I think about Mr. Davis’s stories, though, because I can’t help but think about how much change his beloved neighborhood and school building has seen, and I can’t help but think about how my charter didn’t really belong in his neighborhood in the first place.

What used to be a vibrant school building, full of culturally sustaining pedagogy, was morphed by my charter into a factory dedicated to transforming children of color into societal widgets. A place that used to celebrate black culture, now actively works to erase it through forced silence and conformity.

Listening to Mr. Davis’s stories of schooling during Jim Crow, I realized that, Jim Crow and segregation are still alive and well, they’ve just been obscured by aliases like “school choice.” In my city, “charter school” was nearly synonymous with “black school,” and I refuse to accept this as a coincidence. It’s not a coincidence that the student population of my school was 99% African-American and that the faculty of that school was 100% white – my charter actively sought to whitewash a black neighborhood that was beautiful and sustaining. Listening to Mr. Davis, I began to see my charter for what it truly was – an act of violent, educational colonialism. My charter school stole land from people who had lived in the neighborhood all their lives, under the guise of “helping” the locals “fix” the educational system that was deemed “broken” by the white oligarchs on the school’s executive board.

No, we weren’t teachers, we were colonists, seduced by the promise of a new world order, sent to a foreign neighborhood in order to line the pockets of those in power. My coworkers, indoctrinated and armed with white savior rhetoric, were imported to the neighborhood by alternative teacher certification programs to be puppets of racist educational policy and an oligarchical desire for black and brown children to assimilate to a white way of life. (And if they were the students not to assimilate, they were sent spinning down the pipeline to prison, where they could be further “re-educated.”)

Listening to Mr. Davis, I became acutely aware of the harm I was doing by being complicit in a system that relies on teacher colonists to enforce inequitable, racist policy. Listening to Mr. Davis, I became acutely aware that my silence perpetuated the silencing of a generation of children of color. Listening to Mr. Davis, I knew that I had no choice but to become unchartered.

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