TEACH­ERS ARE GATEKEEPERS

An ex­cerpt of Che­lene Knight’s me­moir of­fers a look into her role mod­els grow­ing up as a Black girl,

Toronto Star - - ENTERTAINMENT - CHE­LENE KNIGHT

Che­lene Knight grew up in Van­cou­ver’s Down­town East­side dur­ing the ’80s and ’90s. She and her mother and brother were con­stantly on the move, liv­ing in around 20 dif­fer­ent houses. This me­moir, Dear Cur­rent Oc­cu­pant, pub­lished by Book*hug, ex­plores the ideas of be­long­ing and home in the form of let­ters writ­ten to the peo­ple who now oc­cupy those dif­fer­ent spa­ces. This is for the teach­ers. Grow­ing up, I never had a Black teacher. I never had a Black woman teacher. I never had a Black or mixed-race teacher. I never had a Black or mixed-race woman teacher who un­der­stood what it was like to grow up poor, to live with a mother who strug­gled with ad­dic­tion and sex work, or be a child forced to carry the weight of a low-func­tion­ing adult on her shoul­ders while try­ing to get an ed­u­ca­tion. And I never once ques­tioned this. Un­til now.

Why does this mat­ter? Teach­ers hold a lot of power. Teach­ers are gatekeepers. I will not dance around this. How can a lit­tle Black girl be guar­an­teed she’s of­fered the same op­por­tu­ni­ties as all the other chil­dren in her classes? We’ve seen the movies that now cen­tre around this very ques­tion, but is that enough? How do they chal­lenge her, sup­port her, teach her? How do teach­ers make sure that girl can sit calm at her desk with­out the worry that she isn’t good enough, and that what she has to say isn’t good enough? How do they guar­an­tee that her voice will be heard? All of th­ese ques­tions and thoughts formed twenty-five years later. Now, as an adult, a mother, a pro­fes­sional writer, and an ed­i­tor, I can see the cracks in the nar­ra­tive.

Look­ing back at my younger self, I won­der what would have changed for me had I ever been handed a book writ­ten by a Black fe­male au­thor. How might that have in­flu­enced my life? A big ques­tion. Dionne Brand, Ja­maica Kin­caid, Toni Mor­ri­son, Esi Edugyan, Ce­cily Ni­chol­son, to name just a few. What are the rea­sons names like th­ese never crossed my desk?

So­ci­ety puts so much blame on the par­ents. It’s the par­ents’ job to teach their chil­dren ev­ery­thing they need to know, and this is true to some ex­tent. But let’s break this down a bit: if a child spends eight hours a day, five days a week, for fif­teen years of their life, sit­ting at a desk lis­ten­ing to “teach­ers,” then how much of the re­spon­si­bil­ity falls to th­ese teach­ers?

Most peo­ple may read this book and think, wow, that’s re­ally sad, or they may feel bad that a lit­tle girl ex­pe­ri­enced th­ese things. But that’s not the pur­pose of this book. It took me twenty-five years to fig­ure out that my mother saved my life. And even though it was most likely not her in­ten­tion, she showed me what could hap­pen if I didn’t have a dream. She showed me what could hap­pen if I didn’t work hard. She showed me what could hap­pen if I let the wrong peo­ple in, or left the door open for too long. Maybe, for me, she was the only one who could do that.

Maybe she was the real gate­keeper.

So, yes, teach­ers are gatekeepers. Teach­ers hold a lot of power, and that re­spon­si­bil­ity will never change. Grow­ing up, I never had a Black teacher. I never had a Black woman teacher. I never had a Black or mixed-race teacher. I had a mother.

Grade six. Nine­teen ninety-two. I had this teacher, Mrs. McCloud. I was eleven years old. She said I was a writer. She said th­ese words. I filled up class jour­nals. One per month. Ev­ery­one else had one for the en­tire year. She asked me to read my short sto­ries in front of the class. She sat at her desk and ran a thin blue comb through her tri­an­gu­lar short blond hair. With the pa­per in front of my face, I mum­bled through them. I looked over at her, her short tri­an­gu­lar hair, large­framed body, small eyes. Small smil­ing eyes. She saw me in the base­ment cafe­te­ria sit­ting with friends who had their lunches splayed out across the fold­ing linoleum ta­bles: or­ange slices, sand­wiches with ice­berg let­tuce and thick-sliced tomato. Cheese. Bananas only slightly bruised. Peanut but­ter and jelly. I sat there. Lips per­ma­nently pursed around the straw of my grape-flavoured juice box. Hair pulled back tight. Head­band with a plas­tic white teddy bear on the side. Pink shirt with a scoop neck. She walked over to me. Put her hand on my shoul­der, her blue eyes big­ger than I’d ever seen them. She said noth­ing. She eased her hand down to the mid­dle of my back right be­tween my shoul­der blades. With her other hand she mo­tioned for me to stand up. I stood up. We walked away from the ta­ble with the splayed lunches over to the hot-lunch line. We stood there in si­lence. The line moved. We moved. Si­lence stayed still. My heart pounded. She said noth­ing. We got to the front of the line to pay. I looked up at her. She mo­tioned for me to keep walk­ing. I did. She looked at the cafe­te­ria cashier with her small but big eyes. Whis­pered some­thing. The cafe­te­ria cashier nod­ded in re­sponse. I walked back over to the linoleum ta­ble with the splayed lunches and added mine to the mix. I sat down with my friends. We picked up where we had left off, talk­ing about New Kids on the Block. I looked up to see if Mrs. McCloud was there. She wasn’t. Copy­right 2018 by Che­lene Knight. Reprinted with per­mis­sion by Book*hug.

COUR­TESY CHE­LENE KNIGHT

“Grow­ing up, I never had a Black teacher,” Che­lene Knight writes.

Dear Cur­rent Oc­cu­pant by Che­lene Knight, Book*hug, 120 pages, $20.

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