I can’t tell you how many times Darnell was in detention.
After a while, it didn’t feel right if he wasn’t staying at least an hour after school.
Darnell was late to class.
Darnell swore at another student.
Darnell copied someone’s paper.
Darnell did just about everything and anything that came to his mind. And it earned him time after school with me, his newly-minted 8th grade language arts teacher.
In a class full of mostly brown and black students, many living in an impoverished high crime Pittsburgh suburb, Darnell was the standout. Or at least his misbehavior was.
At first, he complained, but I had his mom on speed dial, and she fully supported my holding him accountable.
He wanted to do his homework during this time, but I made him do busy work instead. The way I looked at it as a young teacher just starting out, if I gave him time to do his school work, it would be a reward, not a punishment.
So I made him copy down dictionary definitions, clean the tables or put up the chairs.
And once he realized there was no way out, he did it all uncomplainingly.
But an hour is a long time, so after a while I let him work on his homework, too.
I had an awful lot of work to do, myself, during these times – piles of papers to grade and lessons to plan – so whatever would keep him quiet would be okay with me.
Unfortunately, Darnell didn’t work that way. He had questions. So many questions.
I had no time, but what else was I gonna’ do?
I answered him. With frustration at first while sitting at my desk.
Then I found myself walking over to him and standing at his table. Then I sat down next to him. And pretty soon we were doing the homework together.
But an hour is a long time, so sometimes he’d finish early. I offered to let him go.
He didn’t want to.
He’d stay and talk: “Did you see the football game, Mr. Singer?”
Or “Did you hear the new Beyoncé album, Mr. Singer?”
Or “How many kids do you have at home, Mr. Singer?”
One day I remember the last bell ringing and looking up to see Darnell at his desk doing homework. I looked back at my stack of papers before I realized – Darnell didn’t have detention today.
I laughed. “You can go home, Buddy,” I said.
“I know,” he replied. “Is it okay if I stay and get this done?”
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But I was.
I nodded, and he stayed.
I won’t say Darnell ever became a perfect student. He just didn’t have the patience for detailed work. He was more of a big picture guy.
But after months of never turning in homework – years, really – he began to turn all of it in. And I mean all of it!
He wasn’t a great speller, but he started ending all of his sentences with punctuation. And he started all of his sentences with a capitalized word.
He wasn’t a great reader, but he did crack open a few books. Nothing too difficult or complex, but it was more than any teacher I talked to had ever seen him read previously.
At the end of the year, I remember pausing by his desk and praising him.
“Darnell, that’s some mighty fine work you did in here this year,” I said.
And he got this big ol’ grin on his face like he used to get before he was about to engage in some random act of mischief.
“Thanks, Mr. Singer. You’re a really good teacher.”
I smiled and said, “No, Darnell. You’re a good student.”
I remember looking him in the eye to emphasize it. This was a kid with a reputation. I’ll bet few teachers had ever commended him on his school work before.
Then the year ended, and he was gone.
He went on to 9th grade and did even better than in my class. The same in 10th, 11th and 12th.
Oh, sure. He was still a handful and got himself in trouble lots of times. But he did his work and didn’t fail his classes.
I kept an eye on him like I do all my students when they leave me. I try to keep tabs, but there’s always a new bunch just waiting for you at the beginning of the year.
You remember anytime you think about it, which isn’t much.
So it was years later when I heard the news.
Teachers were shaking their heads in the faculty room. The principal held a meeting to tell us about it in case any of our current students were upset, in case any of us had Darnell’s cousins, brothers, sisters, or friends.
He was only 18 when he was murdered.
Shot down in the streets from a passing car.
Police still don’t know whether he was the shooter’s target or if he was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The high school teachers, who knew Darnell best, said he had really straightened up his act. He had gotten into community college, wanted to be an engineer.
And they shook their heads. What else was there to say?
I walked back to my classroom and opened a file cabinet.
Inside was a bunch of dusty manila folders – one for each child I had ever made serve a detention.
It didn’t take long to spot Darnell’s. It was one of the thickest.
I opened it up and took out the stack of papers inside.
There were doodles of monsters and basketball players. There were lists of badly spelled vocabulary words in his adolescent handwriting. And there were these halting paragraphs about what he’d done to get detention and how he’d never do it again.
“I’m sorry I wuz late 2 class. I will ask to use bathrom before going.”
“i will not copy LaRonns paper. i will do it myself.”
I read through them all. Every one. I read them again and again until long after everyone else but the janitors had left the building.
I had spent so much time with Darnell.
I had poured my soul into that kid.
But what had it truly accomplished?
He is dead. A victim of his environment. Nothing but a number, a statistic, a footnote.
Just not to me.
By all accounts he had been trying to do good, trying to make something of himself. But it wasn’t enough. Bullets don’t discriminate between the hardworking and the lazy. They just do what they do.
In my mind I tried to see him walking home, a stack of books weighing him down, making him slow. I saw him walking past those ramshackle apartments and slums, that shady park with the broken benches, the street corners where you could buy heroin or pills or weed.
If he was white, would it have been different? If he was white and didn’t live in the “bad neighborhood,” would it have mattered?
If his mom didn’t have to work two or three jobs, would it have helped? If he had someone at home to watch him instead of a bunch of younger siblings and cousins to watch, would things be different?
I don’t know.
But I DO know that there is a list of dead children in my community – some of them my former students – and almost all of them are black.
Darnell wasn’t killed by a policeman, but I’m sure they knew his name. He used to tell me how the cops would often follow him and his friends into the grocery store. “Why they always be doin’ that?” he’d ask me. And I’d just shrug thinking about all the times he’d wait until I wasn’t looking before slapping another child on the neck.
But if Darnell had been white, would we have had different expectations of him? Would we have given him the benefit of the doubt to begin with – like we do white kids?
I wasn’t a very good teacher to Darnell. Every scrap of respect I gave him he had to earn. Why didn’t I give him that respect at the start? Why didn’t I expect the best and then change my expectations as the situation dictated? Why did I instead expect the worst and alter my expectations from there?
I never questioned if or why Darnell was seeking my attention. I just thought of his bad behavior. It was something I wanted to change, so here’s a punishment.
I never offered Darnell my help. I offered help to the class as a whole but not to Darnell individually. Not until he wore me down. Not until helping him was easier than arguing with him.
I never thought about Darnell’s needs. I thought about MY needs of Darnell. I need him to behave so I can teach. Never Darnell’s needs to behave so he can learn.
And there are so many other kids out there like him. I’ve taught so many other little Darnells.
I approach them differently now. It’s a lesson he taught me.
I may have bestowed upon him some spelling and grammar. He taught me humanity. Who is the better teacher?
He taught me to look at black children in a different way.
He taught me to come to them on their terms. To begin anew with an expectation that they will do well no matter what they’ve done in the past. He taught me to look beyond their behaviors and see them as little people. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and it informs my teaching to this day.
As I sat there with that stack of dusty folders, I realized it doesn’t end at the classroom door.
I used to think being a parent, myself, I had an interest in the future. But that’s not entirely true. Being a parent is one of the most rewarding things you can do, but it isn’t selfless. It only means you care about your child. Not all children.
And that’s where being a teacher is different. After a while, you can’t be selfish anymore. You can’t care for only some people’s futures. You are essentially invested in a future for all, for everyone.
You can try to draw a line in the sand and say “I only care about THESE kids,” but it doesn’t work. You find yourself caring about all of them, all of the children who will become our world when we crumble to dust.
That’s how it should be for everyone.
As a human being, it is my responsibility to fight to make this world a better place for people like Darnell. It’s my responsibility to make sure they all have a future.
But it goes beyond even that. I’m not just any person. I’m a white person.
All the things stacked against a kid like Darnell were stacked in my favor. I lived in a good neighborhood. Police never followed me anywhere. No matter how much I misbehaved, it was always expected I wouldn’t cause any trouble – unless I did.
So it’s my responsibility as a white person to fight my privileged place in society. It’s my responsibility to ensure that black people aren’t held back by entitlements I have not earned and handicaps they do not deserve.
As a white teacher, it is my responsibility to see the best in my children – in ALL of my children. It is my responsibility to meet them where they are and give them support and nurturing and love.
To do so I must see beyond the walls of invisible prejudice. I must see the hurdles, the traps, the maze so I can help them overcome it.
Because Darnell never got to go to college. He never got to become an engineer.
But his life mattered.