By: Jasmine Johnson
The Black, Muslim Teacher is what I often refer to myself as. Not because it is all the I embody, but it is usually how others identify me, because that is what they see. The idea of seeing someone in their total form is rare. Not because we don’t want to show others who we are, but because we show up in rooms as our best selves, being who others view us to be. As the Black, Muslim Teacher, I have learned that it is unacceptable to only see a person as they visibly show up. Through schooling and practice I have learned the importance of seeing and teaching the whole child. Through the lenses of education, specifically special education. But where is the emphasis on seeing and teaching the whole child who has an incarcerated parent? In a country where mass incarceration of Black & Brown people and the school-to-prison pipeline theory is heavily discussed, there are not enough opportunities or platforms that allow us to show up as our whole selves. Well, maybe there are, in cases where those of us establish a criminal record as our parents had, or in cases where those of us have the exact opposite story as our parents, in those cases we are always the exception to the rule.
As I reflect on my schooling, I believed my teachers had picture perfect lives. Because of what they chose to showcase and highlight, which alluded to picture perfect realities. I now have the opportunity to flip the script. No, it may not be befitting for my scholars to know my life story in specific details, but I intentionally showcase my family in our truest form. My reality is that I was born to two teenagers. My mother who has always been above the status quo, from giving birth to me a month before she began her senior year of high school, to be the first in her family to graduate with a Master’s Degree. Most importantly raising me while my father has been in prison for 16 years. My father was incarcerated at my birth. During his “free” time he and I spent a lot of bonding time together. We have always had the most authentic relationship. At 11 years old my father was arrested again. He is still parenting from the inside 16 years later. My first attempt to flip the script, is to be intentional in my teaching spaces. I do this by showcasing my teenage parents as teenagers and as the individuals they are today. Unfortunately, who my father is currently a prisoner.
First introductions are always important, because we learn what people are comfortable sharing with others that they don’t know. When I initially introduce myself to my students, I want them to see my perfectly imperfect family structure. Through visuals. In these instances, some of them may connect to me solely based off similar parental situations. Others may realize that I am human and can relate to people they interact with in their communities. Despite how put together I may look on the outside, as I continue to teach middle school and high school students, I understand more than ever that transparency is always the best policy. As the Black, Muslim, Teacher, I want people to see me as such when I walk into a room. I also want people to see the layers underneath, the unseen. Being a part of these marginalized groups has allowed me to have empathy for my students, who have to mask all that they are because of what people choose to see on the surface.
I am aware that our schools fail to acknowledge and teach about the prison system effectively. Aside from the obvious that we don’t want our scholars to end up in prison. Simply because prison has been viewed as a place where “bad people” go. Instead of a person’s actions being what our society categorizes as undesirable. We do our students a disservice when we paint this picture of those who have a criminal record. I’ve flipped the script, not only by defying the odds that were set up against me, but also by bringing my father into these spaces with me. That dismantles the mindset that prison equates to “bad people”. When I bring my whole self into the spaces that I enter, I am showcasing the importance of being gentle with others and not counting them out because of their circumstances.
When we push this negative association of prison, children have no choice but to know failure. When it relates to people who have gone to prison and the effects of those who they’ve left behind. The statistics states, that children who have a parent who is incarcerated have a higher chance of incarceration themselves. Despite my father being in prison for more than half my life, my siblings and I have never been incarcerated. Many people may look at us and say that we are the exception to the rule, because they only choose to see a limited version of who we are. All that we have endured and everything that we have preserved against. The reality is that there are many other children of incarcerated parents across this country who have showcased resilience despite their circumstances. As the Black, Muslim, Teacher I am blessed to have a parent who is able to effectively parent from the inside, provide me with lessons and tools that he wouldn’t have in a different predicament.
I not only want my students to see me when I walk into the room, but I want them to see my father, just as when they walk into the room. I want to see all of who they are, not just the scholar. What people see on the surface is an illusion and the reality is that we are much more than what the eye catches.
New Jersey native, Jasmine Johnson is an educator, philanthropist, and author of the children’s novel Nuri’s Tinkle Collar.
Instagram: @thenuricollection @jmtutors @_foreverjazzzy