Between a rock and a hard place

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I realized recently when I introduce myself, I usually say, “I am an educator, advocate, and mother of one.”

Me being a mother seems to always come last in my introduction – as if motherhood isn’t the vital essence of why I am an educator and an advocate. I didn’t start teaching until I had my daughter and I wasn’t a relentless advocate for children until I realized the enormous disparity that exists for our black and brown children.

In all fairness, my daughter is a statistic. The only child of a single mother who works more than one job to make ends meet. That’s where the “statistical limitations” stop though because while my daughter and I don’t share the same last name, we do share an insistence on equity in the classroom whereas she advocates for herself as much as I do for her.

I realized that I am an educator first, for it is my life’s calling – one that lends itself to being the cornerstone of my advocacy work. I advocate for children and their parents because you can’t just impart knowledge to the youth and not disseminate it to their parents because it won’t promote lasting change.

When I am a mother, I embody the other two, educator and advocate.  Let’s be honest; schools aren’t readily listening to the single black mother of a student who just seems to be unhappy with what’s going on.

Don’t believe me?

5th-grade classroom, circa 2016-17 school year

I requested a meeting with my daughter’s teacher and Vice Principal as a result of her low reading grade. I was told it was a result of a reading challenge, where she must read nine chapter books per each nine-week quarter. This seems a bit unrealistic, aside from the fact that my daughter is on a 7th-grade reading level and enjoys science fiction and fantasy novels which are usually 300+ pages.

I intentionally arrived to this meeting wearing my sweatshirt and sneakers and my hair wrapped up – a mixture between Erykah Badu and Candace Parker. The meeting began with the teacher explaining how my daughter received an F for four test grades for only having read three books the previous nine weeks. She expressed how she was very clear about the requirements before this meeting and her lack of meeting expectations warrants her grade.

Justification then Dismissal.

As a teacher and advocate, I often heard the irritation of parents when they spoke about administration – whether at my school or another. First, the school justifies their actions then dismisses the parents’ claim.

That day, I sat in that chair, knowing that my daughter’s school had no idea who I was and what I knew.

In the ten minutes that followed, I explained to my daughter’s teacher the purpose of Accelerated Reader, my daughter’s point threshold and its equivalency with the books she read. I pointed out the rigor of the books she read and the ultimate fallacy of her “Reading Challenge.” I peppered that with my years of experience, education and certifications in literacy.

I could have stopped with advocating for my daughter, yet in that moment, I began to speak for the countless mothers and fathers who are judged by their family make-up, are labeled as “absent parents who are not involved” because they work two jobs, or the fact they work at all.

Let’s not mention the fact, I don’t have the luxury of being present at Muffins with Moms or Parent/Teacher Conference because I am someone else’s child’s teacher. I left that meeting not just changing my daughter’s grade, but insisting the altering of the challenge to be fair for all students.

I’m no longer stuck between a rock and a hard place – I am what I am – an advocate, a mother and educator.

I’m a part of a system that wasn’t designed with my black child in mind. Yet, I work within it to empower others to do something different when they encounter injustice and inequity.

Years ago, I heard the sentence, “The master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house.” It discouraged me. I thought my time within the classroom, in the master’s system, was in vain – didn’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.

However, just as one sentence in the Bible can be taken out of context and foolishly applied, so was this. The approach that must be taken is much more radical. Much more deliberate.

I’ve realized, it’s not too bad to be stuck between a rock and a hard place – especially when you have the hammer to break that shit up!

Audre Lorde wrote, “… survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

 

Marlena Little

Educator, visionary and leader.

Marlena Little grew up in the inner-city of Chicago in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city. Yet the contrast of her home and school life provided evidence to the statement, “it’s not where you’ve been but where you are going”. Having attended one of the best elementary and high-schools in the country, she was determined to live beyond the poverty and violence of her neighborhood, knowing education was the escape.

Marlena Little, a Memphian by choice, relocated to Memphis to fight for educational equity. As a teacher, it was important for Marlena’s students to see her as an example of that escape. As an administrator, Marlena challenged teachers and staff to illuminate education as the way out, yet as a visionary, Marlena has created paths of escape.

As Founder of Life Prep Academy Schools, Marlena Little has seamlessly merged her childhood with the standard of excellence imbedded in her educational experiences to provide students, regardless of any “label”, the limitless opportunities a high-quality education affords.  Her philosophical beliefs about education are the guiding principles of Life Prep.

In addition to her many roles, Marlena Little is also a mother and forever learner.  She is a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Leadership and has the pleasure of raising a nine-year-old daughter.