Black Kids Lives Matter: My Experience Within the West Hartford School System
My name is Dahlia Duncan and I graduated with the Class of 2014. Unlike majority of the students who experienced the West Hartford Public School System, I was a transfer student. I transferred to hall in the middle of my sophomore year, more specifically my first day was Friday April 13th, of 2012.
Before I was able to start school, my parents fought with my guidance counselor and other staff in charge of student courses to make sure that I was not put in the lower math and English classes. At my first high school I was enrolled in Honors English for the first two years and also was in accelerated math. Because I was not familiar with the Hall High system and did not start on any accelerated path with Hall, those staff members tried to argue a case that I would not do well transferring in at this level. My parents argued to put me in the courses first and let me work speak for itself. The staff acquiesced; my work stood out on its own and I did well in the courses the rest of the semester- despite their assumptions. Had we not fought to keep me in accelerated math, I would not have been able to take the collegiate level math via UConn as an upper classman.
Within my first three weeks at the school I was bullied by girls I clearly never knew, and I witnessed a lot of bullying. A few instances of bullying include:
A classmate who started a rumor about me gossiping about another girl in the class. The girl who started this drama was a known class clown and would often start drama. When she roped me in the argument, I stood up for myself and the other girl tried to fight me. The teacher came in the classroom and pulled me out. It wasn’t until she heard me say, “I have only been here for two weeks. I don’t even know anyone”, that she looked at me in shock. She said, “yeah, you really have only been here for three weeks”. She sent me back in the classroom and she began to teach the class as if nothing happened. She did not address the other girls. There was no real barrier.
In my second week at the school I was in gym class. There was popular black football player who was comfortable bullying others and monopolizing the classes time. On this day the gym teacher kept redirecting the classes attention, but the student did not stop. The distraction went from joking around to him intentionally picking on a black girl. He began to make fun of her hair, her clothes, her skin tone, and her intelligence. It was not until I stood up to him that the gym teacher said anything. He made a comment about the other students needing to ‘watch out’ for me – almost as a “she’s a firecracker” kind of comment. What I did not understand was why it took me, the new student, and another black girl, saying anything for the behavior to stop. It should not matter how many times the gym teacher had to redirect the class. Anti-bullying is not just redirection. It is also advocacy for those who of vulnerable populations.
Boys came to my locker or tried to walk me to class for almost two weeks. I did not know any of them and I was not interested in any of them. A male teacher made a comment towards me, “I’m not surprised that a pretty girl like you has all of the guys trying to talk to her”. Weird. Apparently, some of those boys had girlfriends. I had to de-escalate and express to about seven different girls that I had no intentions of breaking up their relationships. I also had to express to most of them that if this is how their boyfriends are, they do not need to be with them.
Just in those few instances there are major issues:
Why does the young, new black girl have to not only stand up for herself but those around her? Black women are often told how ‘strong’ they are. This is not a compliment to every black women. We had to learn to learn to be that way. Very few people question what that black woman had to experience as a young black girl to become a strong black woman.
The male teacher making a comment on the appearance of a young high school girl is creepy. Black girls/women are often sexualized at a much earlier and at higher rates than that of white girls/women. This also ties back to rape culture- a woman’s appearance and the attraction men have to it are often categorized as the woman’s fault rather than men being held accountable for their actions and lack of boundaries.
There was a self-worth issue going on at that school (across both sexes and all races).
Moving into my Junior year, I was excited to begin taking Chemistry. However, there was a lot of cheating. I respected the teacher and really liked Chemistry but despite all of that, the teacher often under graded my assignments me or devalued my comments/engagement in the class. She did so in front of the class. I was an average student towards the beginning but was becoming more and more confident in the material. It was not until the teacher overheard a friend in the course degrading her and then heard me standing up for her (despite the teacher’s constant dirty looks and disrespect toward me) that she changed her attitude toward me. I am not sure if the teacher knew about the cheating, but I addressed it once before a test. Before this big test I was nervous because I know that this could make or break my grade. The teacher stepped out just before administering the test and some students began to brag about the cheating and one student tried to joke about me having a lower grade. I told the class “I’m not a cheater. A lot of you probably have an A in the class but at least I earned my C. You will get caught”. Ironically, a few minutes into taking the test, a foreign language teacher stormed into our class to berate a student who was caught cheating in his foreign language class. The teacher exclaimed that the student better tell his parents the truth and not ‘try to scare me into giving you a high grade’. There was often cheating going on within the school and many students who bragged that their parents did their homework or were somehow involved in making sure the student would pass. After the teacher left the room, I saw a couple of students roll down their sleeves or put away their unauthorized cheat sheets.
While I experienced a lot there, the school work was rigorous at times and I enjoyed that. I also played Volleyball there for two years and was a member of two groups: Multicultural Club and a group for black upper-classmen. I found that both were great outlets for me as I helped to pull students into these groups. I was happy that there was group for black girls- even though it was new, and I do not believe that it was sustained.
Other positive experiences include:
My favorite English teacher who made sure everyone knew that her classes would not read about “dead white men” but would challenge her students to understand the plight of black and female authors. She was amazing and I became one of her TA’s. She was one of few teachers I could turn to- she did not try to express how much she understood that I experienced, she listened and was empathetic.
I also had an Indian history teacher- who was witty and well versed in history. Having a non-white person teach history can be beneficial because that helps ensure that history classes are not whitewashed.
The first year I attended the school, there was a black principle. He was great and an advocate for other black people.
My Physics teacher who went out of his way to make sure I felt welcome in his class or that I had someone to sit with at lunch.
If I could offer one suggestion to the West Hartford School system, it would be to ask yourselves:
What are you doing to advocate for and enrich the lives of the black and brown children that are enrolled in your schools? It is more than school programs that ‘could’ interest them. A lot of these kids have experienced trauma both from different environments and because trauma is passed down through the DNA.
Colorism, self-worth, micro-aggressions, lack of advocacy, few black and brown teachers/higher up staff, bullying, privilege/entitlement and more need to be checked when it is noticed. Education of what ally-ship looks like needs to be incorporated more often (provided to students and teachers). Black and brown kids should not have to be their own advocates and catalysts for change- especially when they are the victims of unchecked systemic/systematic racism/bias. From what I’ve experienced, Hall High School does a great job at making sure to include, uplift, and do more than tolerate the LGBTQ+ community or non-white people whose families are affluent. The same is expected for children and families who do not fit those categories.
Instagram handle: @ask.dahlia