For my ninth birthday, my parents got me a Sony CD walkman and The Diary of Alicia Keys. I was determined that I would be a singer when I grew up, and the existence of Alicia Keys only affirmed that in me. It was bad enough that we shared the same name, but that along with her braids and the fact that I had recently started piano lessons meant that she was who I was going to be. I would listen to her album non-stop at my best friend’s house who went to a different school. We had been flower girls in the same wedding and were inseparable on the weekends, playing with Bratz Dolls, watching J. Lo movies, and catching up on all the music we had listened to on MTV that week.
At the time, it didn’t feel like I had any really close friends in school. By the time we hit the middle of elementary school, my classroom felt like it was becoming increasingly less Black, to the point that at one time there were only three Black girls in a class of twenty-five in this school in Tanzania. I didn’t think that I had that much in common with my classmates, few of whom ever even mentioned Alicia Keys, or Destiny’s Child, or Ciara, or the other artists that I loved at the time. So, at school, I mostly kept to myself.
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When “My Boo” came out, I thought it was the best song ever made. I would sing it to myself absent-mindedly, under my breath, in class and walking around at lunch and recess. Until one day, one of the three Black boys in my class came up to me and told me that he loved that song. And then suddenly, I had someone at school who I could share my interests with, I could feel less alone with. It felt so incredibly powerful. And it felt really, really nice.
There’s an Adrienne Rich quote in which she describes the “psychic disequilibrium” of seeing a socially constructed reality of a world without you in it, “as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing,” she goes on to say. There are classrooms like this filled with students experiencing that disequilibrium as part of their everyday educational experience. This dilemma is often considered in the context of discourse surrounding “representation” present and absent in books, movies, curricula material and so on. But if it follows that there is a detrimental psychological effect of not seeing yourself reflected back at you in the fictional or the abstract, what are the effects of this invisibility of self in the day-to-day reality of the classroom?
The representation discourse is often plagued by two criticisms, the first being that is the concern of the elite, and the latter being that it is a concern that is mostly superficial. These both hold true when I consider my own childhood conundrum. My elementary was exclusive and expensive and I had access to it due to my own privilege. Furthermore, the fact that I sometimes felt sad or isolated had little impact on the high quality education that I received. If anything, my White and elite elementary gave me the tools to later thrive in other White and elite spaces that I would later go and critique. Nevertheless, the problem still matters.
Not all students sit in classrooms that are multicultural or multiracial, but some do. Not all students are hurt academically, socially, or materially by being in classrooms with students who are different from them, but some do. Not all of us believe in diverse classrooms as a necessity or even as a positive, but some of us do. Thus, the disequilibrium is worth exploring. How does what a classroom look like impact what a classroom feels like? What might it look like to create classrooms where students feel less alone? Why might it even matter?
Growing up in Dar, of course, I was surrounded with people who looked exactly like me, starting with my immediate and extended family who flooded every gathering with hits from everything from Magic System’s “Premier Gaou” to Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” to Michael Jackson “You Rock My World.” I was in a country with Black politicians and pilots and physicians, many of whom again, looked exactly like me because they were my family members. In many ways, the world of my family and the world where we were living affirmed my identities and my place.
And at the same time, I was a Black, dark-skinned African girl insecure about her body growing up in the 2000s with a huge world beyond me that I still needed to engage in. I loved popular media and there was nothing even close to my world in the books that I read or the movies that I watched. There were only approximations, few and far, that I would then hold on to, like Alicia Keys, shades lighter and continents away.
Moreover, I was spending eight hours a day, five days a week, in a school where the majority of the students and all of the teachers were racially and culturally dissimilar to me. Not only that, but they seemed to have little knowledge of my experiences and my life, and all that we learned about and talked about was framed in the context of White people and their experiences. It made me sad and lonely and insecure and moody, the effects of which all reverberate within me until today.
At the beginning of the year, there is a community building exercise that some teachers like to do with their students. The entire class sits together and they discuss what they want their classroom to look like, sound like, and feel like, to then consider how to get there. When I learned about this activity, it was the last prompt that stuck with me. Classrooms leave an impression on their students, not only through the academic knowledge that they are taught, but through the social messages that they are taught too. Is the classroom making them feel seen? Valued? Important? Should it even matter?
An education is meant to prepare us for the future, but we grow up to be more than just our jobs. We grow up to be friends, and partners, and family members, and co-workers, and how we do in those roles depends less on what we know about math and science, but what we know about ourselves. Who we are and how we see ourselves, that identity creation starts early and schools play a major role in that, determining how students feel on the inside via the messages they are receiving from their classrooms.
Human being need to feel like they are important. This includes students too. That importance comes from feeling valued for all of who they are, and their education can either support or undermine their sense of self, regardless of if they are in a classroom where they are in the minority or the majority. Classrooms need to acknowledge students’ identities and interests, then affirm and integrate them into the space. By doing so, students consequentially learn about one and other to hopefully find shared places of interest, or at the very least, learn to respect others and themselves. If we change our classrooms, we can change how students see themselves, setting them up externally and internally to be successful in taking on the world, as we would like an education to prepare them to do.
Making that connection after “My Boo” came out made me a little more confident that maybe my people were out there if I was just a little more open. It didn’t take long for me to then link up with one of the other Black girls left in the class, and then forge a connection with a new girl who joined our school from Uzbekistan, and when a new Black girl finally joined our class, we became friends too. Finally, I felt like I had a crew.
My friends and I became a part of each others’ lives, trying to sit next to each other in the classrooms, laughing at recess, and walking side by side to all classes and activities. Our friendship existed outside of school too, and we went to watch Dreamgirls at the movies, we stayed up late to rap Kanye West’s “Good Life,” and most importantly, we became a part of each others’ lives, through dinners and sleepovers where we all became a part of each others’ worlds. We became each other’s worlds.
I knew that change was coming though. My parents and I had been talking more and more about me going to boarding school and eventually, I got into a school that was countries away in Eswatini. I was nervous about leaving but for the first time, I was feeling confident in who I was and my ability to start again. I had friends here, and I would have friends there. I would be okay. Right?
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every essay is my favorite but this is literally my favorite amazing writing
Wow Simba you are an amazing writer. So honest. I grew up very similarly to you right here in the U.S. We need to dig deeper to make sure our classrooms really sees every single child. Thanks for this.