Association of Washington School Principals
Volume 1 – 2020-21
James Layman in third grade.
Your students need you now, more than ever
James Layman
Program Director, Association of Washington Student Leaders
Evaluation Criteria: Creating a Culture, Engaging Families and Communities, Closing the Gap
I remember the first time I realized I was treated differently because of my skin color.
Before I share this story, let me contextualize my experience. I am a Black male, adopted into a single-parent white family. My mother later adopted two other Black children who became my brother and sister. The family next door to us was a white couple with one biological child and two adopted Black children. So, conversations about race were commonplace in my household for as long as I can remember. Explaining my family to my classmates was always a fascinating conversation. My mother was a white woman with a perm who would walk into our classroom with Converse tennis shoes, complete with little ringing bells on them. The ensemble was completed by a denim dress with embroidered flowers while several African necklaces adorned her neck. Her entrance into my classroom became an ever-familiar conversation. I remember the scene vividly. I was in third grade. At recess, my friend was going around chatting with different classmates but was intentionally avoiding me. I would go up to him and ask, “What were you telling everyone?” He said, “I can’t tell you.” He would then run off. It was a weird moment, and I remember feeling like something was up. Later that day in PE, I asked my friend again, “Can you please tell me what you were talking about with everyone? I promise I won’t get mad.” He sighed and said, “Okay, but you told me you wouldn’t get mad. I am having a birthday party in a few weeks, and I can’t invite you to it, because you are a n*****. My dad says you can’t be in our house, so I wasn’t supposed to tell you about the party.” Yes, I held in my tears because I had assured him I wouldn’t get mad. Truthfully, I wasn’t mad: I was destroyed. I went about my day and walked home, mulling over the moment. That night I told my mom about it. She called our neighbors, and they came over. They sat all six of us kids down and explained that word — the N-word — and racism, and that unfortunately, there are people in the world who will make us feel less than.
Yes, I held in my tears because I had assured him I wouldn’t get mad. Truthfully, I wasn’t mad: I was destroyed.
Me, forever, the inquisitive person asked, “Will it ever get better?” My mom, with tear-filled eyes, said, “There is someone like you in the world right now that you probably don’t know and won’t ever meet that is doing work so that you never have to feel that way again. When you are big, it will be your turn to do that, so some child your age can have a better experience than you.” I was spoiled, in many respects. Living in a multicultural family and getting to share in the beauty of that with our neighbors is something that I forever cherish. Living through blatant racism was a jarring and pivotal moment in my life, as it taught me that the love and acceptance that we shared in our neighborhood did not exist everywhere. Fast forward to a week this past June. I had a person call me to discuss the events that are unfolding in front of us. Within our exchange, I replied, “I have been called a n***** twice this week.” Their response, “Well, maybe stop sharing your feelings.” At that moment, that same feeling of devastation and trauma I experienced in third grade crept back to the surface. I was transported back to myself in third grade sitting there with my high-top sneakers and Ninja Turtles t-shirt, hearing about the ugliness in the world. My answer came from the love, support, and awareness that was embedded in me at that moment. I responded: “Somewhere in the world, there is a child that looks like me who doesn’t have the platform or privilege I do to speak up and out regarding this. I don’t want that child to be my age and have to live through the same type of pain that I and many others have. So, I cannot and will not be quiet.”
When I would design marching band shows, one reflective activity I would commit to doing with the design staff was: Start-stop-keep. Each year as we would begin to create our next production, we would explore through this lens. What is something we are going to start doing? What is something we are going to stop doing? What is something that we are going to keep doing? It allowed us to both reflect and activate meaningful changes in the way we would develop, act, and live out our goals. This exercise is something I have adopted into my personal life, especially as it relates to equity, opportunity, and access. The big question that I frequently am is, “Where do I even start?” For me, I inherently use this exercise without realizing it, but it has allowed me to start mapping out decisions and intentional choices. I am committed to start owning my blackness and not shying away from it. I am committed to stop living on a diet of unhealthy social media posts and scouring the comment sections. I am committed to keep being the person that I needed when I was younger. What are things you can start doing? What are the things you can stop doing? What are the things you can keep doing? Let us all realize there is no perfect roadmap to understanding how to navigate through these waters. Let us all remember that comparison robs us of growth, as no two equity journeys are the same. Change begins when those with privilege and power say, “tell me more” to those most significantly affected by these horrific moments. Understanding starts when the brave say, “I have a desire and willingness to learn.” To third-grade James, asking if things will ever get better, to him, I say: “I’m working on it.”
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