“To be good at teaching, one has to be able to connect with students, to engage them, inspire them, communicate easily with them, get inside their heads and figure out what they don’t understand and find a way to help them understand it.” -from Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
A week ago, I finished up a two week unit on absent black fathers and whether or not this proposed epidemic should be blamed for serious community failings. I knew that it would spark a lot of controversy within my classes, but I was not prepared for the visceral type reactions some students had to talking about the subject. I had students shout that whoever their father was, he was just a sperm donor and they did NOT want to talk about it beyond that. I had one student who told me he would not participate. When I talked to him privately, I told him that sometimes we are forced to encounter topics that will push our comfort boundaries and hit close to home. He looked me right in the eyes and said, “This isn’t close to home. This IS home.”
See for many of my students, in their lives, they very much spell father, M-O-T-H-E-R, as a young spoken word artist pointed out in his piece “Spelling Absent Father.” Most have grown calloused over the years towards mention of their father, many who are sitting in prison cells or taking care of other families. One of my young girls asked in our Socratic seminar how others felt when they could not get the time of day from their father, but would see him taking care of other children, sometimes not even their own. I could tell the pain that resonates throughout the years, and one student pointed out that perhaps we should change the wording from ‘absent fathers’ to ‘abandoned children.’
The unit pushed many of them to consider ideas they never had before, especially when we read a blog post entitled “Black Fathers; Dying to See Our Children.” The writer told the story of a young black father named Derek who hurt so much from the lies he felt his son’s mother told him about him and being kept away from his son year after year, that he finally ended his life. The author wrote, “Colored girls aren’t the only ones who have considered suicide when the rainbow wasn’t enuf. Many colored fathers have as well.” It made students start to wonder where the stereotype of black men being the symbol for fatherlessness started and what are the truths we must seek beyond one small statement.
I learned a lot about my students throughout the unit, but I believe, most of all, they learned a lot about themselves. And I didn’t shy away from saying I didn’t have an answer to questions too hard to find appropriate answers, such as when one girl asked me if it was wrong that she did not care to have her father in her life because he killed a baby and how could she love someone who could do that. I don’t always have answers, but I do always have a space for them to explore their thoughts. I was most interested by the largely negative impact absent fathers had on my young ladies. We often hear about absent black fathers creating cycles of men who become absent fathers and end up behind bars. But we don’t listen enough to the stories of young women growing up with their own psychological effects of a father protector who never came or went away, never to come back again. One student wrote: “I felt as my father is also an absent father toward me, only he has four kids, but I’m the one who got treated differently. This shows he made a choice to be absent in my life. He didn’t affect my life, but it did hurt me. What did I do differently?” Young ladies need their fathers as well. As another student stated, you can grow up with mentors and father/mother figures who help you become who you want to be, but some part of you will always feel like something is missing when you don’t know who you came from. I hope these conversations can continue, to help students to build those bridges between the classroom and life, so that they can feel when they leave the school building this way: