TEACHERS ARE GATEKEEPERS
An excerpt of Chelene Knight’s memoir offers a look into her role models growing up as a Black girl,
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.
“Growing up, I never had a Black teacher,” Chelene Knight writes.
Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight, Book*hug, 120 pages, $20.