12/28/2010 12:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I'd Rather Be in Jail

As a first-year special education teacher, in a first-year middle school, under the leadership of a first-year principal, I expected challenges that would rival any "hard day" I have ever experienced. But I never imagined that I could combine all of those "hard days" in one and it would still not be as challenging as some of the days I have experienced in my first three and a half months as a full-time teacher.

The multi-leveled wear and tear is incogitable. No one, except teachers, could ever fathom just how hard teaching is. This is especially true for teachers with high-needs licenses (special education, as an example) and those who teach in high-needs locations (South Bronx, as an example).

The majority of my Brooklyn, N.Y. born and bred black, male students face some combination of the following: living in shelters or overcrowded homes, abuse, neglect, lack of strong role a word, poverty. All of this leads me over and over again to a James Baldwin quote which states: "The paradox of education is precisely this -- that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated." And as I continually question, prod, prick and examine society, I find that it holds black males in a weird dichotomy of adoration, yet contemptible esteem. And the young ones know this, whether they are conscious of it or not.

And yet, all of this prior knowledge, previous exposure and concrete experience with the very population I knew I'd have to teach as a special educator, never prepared me for the words of one of my 12-year-old students:

"So, I'll just go to jail. I don't care."

This was his response to my pleas to stay in the school building so that he would not be picked up by truancy. This statement was preceded and succeeded by a flippant shrug and a face wrought with irresolute expression. And when asked if jail was where he would rather be, his reply was simply, "Yes."

So here I stand, working to teach a young man who would rather be in jail than in a school building. And as I examine where he comes from and the reality of his society and worldview, I can't help but see the many ways that the school building has been designed as a mere pre-jail pit stop for many young black males.

And so I am challenged: To not let this boy or any of the students left under my educational care fall through the cracks of a system filled with gaping holes affectionately known as the "achievement gap." But it's more than an achievement gap that has this boy, and many others, in his current state. It's an opportunity gap, a familial gap, a privilege gap, a community gap.

Many of these students don't feel they belong anywhere. Until these children feel safe and a valuable part of something bigger than themselves (basic human needs that may not be met in their homes), effective learning will not take place, nor will a desire to learn be actualized. All these things I have to consider while seeing to it that these students are promoted to the 7th grade meritoriously and not socially. So while educators must focus on the things they DO have control over, these challenges cannot go overlooked. It is literally a war, each day is a battle. And each battle is won by creating a community that champions the individual and lets him (and her) know that he is a valuable contribution to the whole. Any success I have had to date has come from cultivating this as an essential part of my craft as an educator.

And so I recognize my student's statement as a cry for help and a sense of belonging, among other things. However trite this saying might be, truth is truth and our children need us now more than ever. I challenge everyone, as we move into 2011, to think about ways we can all reach out to these young black males in our immediate communities to build bridges over the cracks and gaping holes that lie in their paths. Mentor, reach out to educators and youth organizers to see how you can contribute. Lend your talents and your time, perhaps the most precious resources you can provide. The community must rally around our youth and become their safety net before they are swallowed whole by systematically created, self-fulfilling prophecies.