“Oooooo his hair is like mine,” I heard a wide-eyed, mahogany-skin faced little boy whisper to his friend as I passed them. His words eased some of my anxiety as I entered an unfamiliar school, in an unfamiliar state, with an unfamiliar task, that often felt unattainable. As a way to end the school-to-prison pipeline, I was to coordinate a mentoring research program for the “at-risk” Black male students at a low-income serving elementary school. I knew a major reason I had gotten the position was because I was a Black male, but I knew that would not be enough.
At the time, I was a counselor education doctoral student, new to Florida, and specifically chose to become a clinical counselor instead of a school counselor because I vowed never to work with kids. Don’t get me wrong I love kids, but I knew to love kids is one thing and to counsel them was another. I could never get past children’s inability to change their circumstances due to a lack of control over those circumstances. The vulnerability inherent to children that allows their beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, perspectives, behaviors, and livelihoods to be shaped and influenced by others always gave me pause when grappling counseling them. There was a similar pause that informed my intentionality as the program coordinator for this mentoring program and often granted me moments to reflect on my own experience as a young, Black, poor male in the education system.
One conversation I had at the school continues to stick out to me more than any other. As part of a recruiting effort, I was trying to get boys in grades 3rd through 5th excited about the idea of getting a mentor by speaking to each classroom. This particular day, recruitment was pretty much over, and I was just going in to check on the kids as I usually did. I was visiting one of my favorite 4th grade classrooms where the joyful and youthful nature always brightened my day. It was there that one boy, Bakari, one of my favorite students, asked to talk to me in private. I had previously tried to sign Bakari up even though teachers did not put his name on the original referral list because they believed, his guardian would never allow it (they were right). Still, fully aware of the situation, every time I visited the school Bakari would always ask to join the mentoring program. But this time was different, with a solemn and concerned look on his face Bakari said, “Mr. Nevin, I need to be in the mentoring program, I need a mentor.” I mirrored his serious, resolute tone with my body language and leaned in to offer him safety in my listening. He went on to say, “I’m a bad kid, I got these anger issues and that’s why I’m bad in class. A mentor would help me.” I immediately cringed and my heart sank as I felt my body retreat into itself. Though, I knew many adults at this school felt this way about him, I knew none of the teachers or administrators ever said that to him. So, I wondered where did he hear it? But that’s the thing, maybe he never heard it, and maybe he never had to.
Maybe Bakari observed the differences in the ways teachers interacted with and disciplined him compared to his peers; consequently, affecting how even his peers interacted and labeled him. Undoubtedly, it was not only the explicit and implicit things said and done to Bakari in this school environment that deemed his internalization of a “bad kid” identity. I saw so much of Bakari in me; full of energy, a challenge in the classroom, not the best student, yet something special, still plenty of potential. Oftentimes, I felt like someone was holding up a mirror to me when I engaged with Bakari. This figurative mirror regularly granted me access to consider my own experiences in the school system. His self-identification as a “bad kid” forced me to confront my self-identification as a “bad kid”. Let’s be clear, on paper Bakari and I were only the same in that we shared a Black identity, were of similar socio-economic status, as far as I know primarily used a masculine gender expression, and I would like to think we both possessed a similar magnanimous spirit with unrivaled potential. Though, I may be boosting myself up and selling him short with that last similarity. We differed in family make-up and dynamic, setting, region, and a bunch of other unknowns. Still, I felt and feel a tremendous connectedness to him. And, like Bakari, no one ever explicitly told me that I was a “bad kid” though I most certainly was and most certainly am.
I was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio during my elementary school aged years. On top of being the new kid at school who talked funny, I was poor and one of the maybe 10 minority students in a Catholic school of 400 with divorced parents. Needless to say, I felt different and like I didn’t belong. My 4th grade year would be marked by the 2000 Cincinnati Race Riots induced by the killing of an unarmed Black man by a White police officer. This was one of the most pliable and therefore vulnerable points of my life. I was made to feel different, less than, incompetent, peaked, and troubled. I can remember the explicitly biased instances within my schooling, which hurt; but it was the implicit instances that left me injured. Today, I still find myself healing from the implicit messages that I internalized. Again, my feelings of not belonging, being flawed with the ingrained belief that my “badness” is my nature rather than the manifestation of a lack of understanding or empathy. Those wounds followed me into my master’s program, doctoral program, and I’m sure will make an appearance during my professional career. As I continue my healing process, I wonder about the healing process of Bakari.
I hope he lives past his potential. I wish for him to be guarded from the explicit and implicit biases, harmful narratives, and growth-stunting perspectives of everyone else and himself may burden him with. Nonetheless, in many ways I know the damage has already been done and he may never be able to outrun those deep-rooting messages. I know that those thoughts can be like waves to the shore, as hard as they push away, they come back with the same force. I know he is not really a “bad kid” and I wish that he believed me when I told him he wasn’t. Yet, I fear my words were ambient noise among deafening messages of exclusion and worthlessness he was constantly receiving. I wish that everyone knew that there really are no “bad” kids, just bad circumstances, limited perspective, and hindering labels.
Signed the Baddest Kid,
Nevin J. Heard, Ph.D., LPC, NCC