A Thank You Note to Mrs. Jones: My Sixth-Grade Teacher

I was once asked the following question during a presentation to a group of high school students, “When did you know that you were going to college?

Without even thinking about it, I responded with a quip that I honestly thought was true. I talked about my mother’s influence and the rock of a man that my father has always been.

However, I was recently forced to reconsider that narrative after coming across a John Hopkins and American University study that detailed the stark differences in expectations from Black and white educators toward African-American students.

The alluded to study suggests that there is a cavernous gap found between what Black and white teachers expect from their African-American students. The alluded to study highlights that white school 4teachers are 30% less likely to believe that their African-American students will successfully matriculate from a four-year University; of course, this number grows significantly when discussing African-American males. Truthfully, such data should not be particularly shocking as scholars such as Jawanza Kunjufu and Haki R. Madhubuti have long warned us of the weird dynamics occurring between African-American males and white educators, particularly females.

As mentioned above, this study forced me to reconsider ‘When I first realized that I would be attending college.’

It did not take much reflection for my mind to settle upon the actual moment that collegiate studies were my destiny.

It was during the initial week of 6th grade at Johnny Appleseed Middle School when I was TOLD by Mrs. Jones (no relation), my only African-American teacher, that I was going to be attending college in a most memorable manner; a method, I might add, that she reiterated at every opportunity.

Before I go further into this post, let me explain a few things. First of all, 6th grade was a particularly difficult time for me because it was the moment that I left the comforts of Hedges Elementary School, a school that was not only 95% Black, but also filled with African-American teachers, for the unfamiliar, and often hostile, lily-white environs of Johnny Appleseed Middle School.

To my chagrin, when I arrived at Middle School, I was placed on a college preparatory track of classes, a track that had a robust five African-American students (myself, James Banks, Michael Drayton, school 6Coretta Jones, and Stephanie Martin) in the midst of hundreds of whites. Not only were nearly all of my classmates’ white, all of my teachers, except for Mrs. Jones, were white. And I must admit that there were times when I wished that she weren’t my teacher because she was, from my eleven-year-old perspective, the meanest and most demanding teacher ever created. In time I actually grew to tremble in her presence and secretly hate the ground that she walked on; nothing, and I do mean nothing, pleased her.

Now I must admit that my conflict with Mrs. Jones emanated from what everyone agrees is my horrendous handwriting, I can read it, at least some of the time I can read it; however, it is admittedly indecipherable to most others. It was my poor handwriting that caused Mrs. Jones to single me out by writing following statement, written in red ink nonetheless, on an assignment; “THIS IS NOT COLLEGE LEVEL WORK!!!!!”

Although I would love to say that my handwriting drastically improved, unfortunately it did not. I eventually abandoned writing in cursive and took Mrs. Jones’ advice and began to print everything from notes to assignments; however, as I am certain that you can imagine, there was no pleasing this Lady as she continued to single me out by repeatedly writing in bold letters on my paper “THIS IS NOT COLLEGE LEVEL WORK!!!!!!  DO IT AGAIN!!!!”

I must tell you that I grew to despise Mrs. Jones and what my 6th Grade mind termed her stupid class. I even went so far as to inform my mother and even Mrs. Jones’ brother, Geron Tate, who just happened to be my Sunday School Teacher, about her continual ‘harassment’; and as I am certain you have figured out already, neither one of them interceded.

As my 6th grade year progressed, I received fewer and fewer red ink declarations from Mrs. Jones, in fact, I started to receive messages such as “THIS IS COLLEGE LEVEL WORK!!!! I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!!!!” on my papers.

My eleven-year-old mind could not comprehend what Mrs. Jones was actually doing by constantly “picking on me.” And the Lord knows that I would have never believed that Mrs. Jones’ tactics were not only college 2encouraged by mother, I later learned that the two were friends, but also born of a seemingly long lost mantra that was repeatedly stated to Black children of my generation, “You are going to have to work twice as hard (as white folk), to get half as far (as white folk).”

With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious to me that Mrs. Jones’, and later my 7th grade teacher Rick Roberson, were ‘toughening’ me up and preparing me for the rigors of the road that lay ahead.

And it is for that reason that I feel compelled to issue a heartfelt thank you to both Mrs. Jones and Mr. Roberson for the work that they did on me. As an educator myself, I now understand how difficult it was and why they did it.

So there you have it, I learned that I was going to college from Mrs. Jones, my 6th grade teacher; in permanent, irreversible, red ink nonetheless, so I knew that she meant it when she said it because you don’t write anything in red ink unless you really, really, really mean it.

Dr. James Thomas Jones III

© Manhood, Race and Culture, 2016.

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