The School Assignment I Refused To Do, And Taught Me The Most

Let’s first start off by confessing that I have never told this story publicly, but due to the very virulent social climate we’re currently living in, it is more than necessary to tell.  My hope is that it will educate people from a perspective that differs from their own.  

First, ask yourself if you’ve ever failed to complete a school assignment, because I most certainly have.  But there was one particular history assignment that I was given that simply felt too unnecessary and morally wrong, even for my 11 year old, 7th grade mind to merely consider taking part of, let alone completing.  With absolutely no shred of exaggeration, the assignment was to “choose to take either the role of a slave or slave owner, and write a daily journal/essay about the experiences you faced in that role.”  No bull!  Most people reading this are either sitting with their mouths agape or rereading the assignment, because that’s precisely what I did, then immediately exclaimed to the teacher that by no means would I do anything of the sort.  The assignment held absolutely zero educational value or purpose.  

1994 Massachusetts (where I was born and raised) was nothing like it was twenty years prior during the Charlestown Massachusetts busing riots and school desegregation.  If you don’t know or have never heard of this, you should take a look here.  I could not for the life of me, understand why someone who holds my educational future in their hands would even entertain the thought of issuing this assignment, but I did know that everything I believed in and valued, was entirely perpendicular to this atrocious task.  I had a “United Nations-like” group of friends, built on an educated and loving environment thanks to the tireless efforts of my parents.  Now that the assignment is setting into your brains, let me share my very unorthodox, but much appreciated upbringing.

Rewind to 1983. I was the first and only son of my parents, two Civil Rights era young adults residing on the campus of Northeastern University, right in the heart of Boston.  Both of my parents were the first and only of their generations to receive a college education.  My father of African-American and Blackfeet Native American descent, earned full academic scholarships for both undergraduate and graduate school.  My mother of Cape Verdean descent, the oldest of four children, graduated with a BA in Criminal Justice.  For the first three years of my life, I was raised around a very memorable and loving group of racially and ethnically diverse students and colleagues of my parents, as my father was one of Northeastern’s Residence Directors.  One of their very close friends throughout college, became my Godfather whom I’ve always known as Uncle Noah, a Jewish man who looked past religious boundaries and “rules” to be a great man and role model to me as I progressed through life.  This is only a microcosm of how diversity and cultural awareness has greatly impacted my life and countless decisions I have made along the way.

Fast forward to 1994 after I decided to defy my History teacher, and state that I would not take part in such a ridiculous assignment.  Her initial reaction was shock, because what 11 year old child in their right mind would refute any lesson taught at a private Catholic school?!  Probably the same child who was four years earlier, denied the same treatment of the other students in terms of participating in church-based activities, because the church the school was affiliated with claimed that I was not baptized in a church that they recognized, or because my Godfather was not of Catholic faith.  So every month when the entire student body and faculty would walk down to the church, I was one of few students who would have to sit in the row of pews in shame as everyone got up to receive the sacrament and be accepted by the faith I was also taught to believe in.  Confusion, anger and fear doesn’t spell the half of it, but I digress.  The fact that I had to even tell a woman nearly four times my age that this assignment was asinine, is enough of an indication that something was seriously amiss.  As a result of my speaking out, nine of my fellow classmates of color and my best friend (a blue eyed, blonde haired boy of Italian descent) also boycotted this assignment, while agreeing to complete an alternate project that did not cross clear moral boundaries.  The deal was not accepted by the teacher and we were threatened with failure for not partaking.  Even though I had the support of ten of my friends, I’ve never felt so alone in a class setting because the majority of the students, whom were white, did not see much wrong with the assignment and made me feel as if I was overreacting and taking things too far.  These actions really caused me to reflect on what friendship really meant and who has the capacity to be willing to step into the shoes of others to understand perspective.

I’ll never forget the terror I felt having to go home later that day and explain to my parents that I very well may receive my first failing grade on an assignment, because of my refusal to participate.  Fear oddly turned to joy as I saw the expression on their faces morph into the same expression I donned earlier that day; disgust and confusion.  The next day my parents got on the phone and called the school, and the principal felt as if there was no wrong in the assignment.  Soon, the collective parents of the “revolutionaries,” would all meet and discuss the next course of action.  The parents tried to keep us all at bay and continue with our education as they hashed out this uncomfortable situation with the school committee.  In the meantime, I remember being called into the principal’s office with the rest of the kids who refused the assignment to speak with her and the head priest of the parish, where we were screamed at for the better part of thirty minutes, which felt like an entire day, and we were called “children of the devil,” quite a few times for our defiance.  That phrase will echo in my mind for the rest of my life.  The school initially did not want to meet with any of the parents to discuss the issue, and as a result my father told the principal that if no one wanted to resolve the situation, the parents can easily go to the press.  In hindsight, I feel that someone should have just gone to the local Boston news stations and exposed all of this madness, but I understand not wanting to have a group of “defiant” children widely misunderstood by the public.  The school board decided they would only meet with one parent and not the collective group.

I bet after all of this you think an action like this and the ridiculousness of the assignment, something positive would come of this...well not quite.  All eleven of us, received a failing grade on the assignment and due to the refusal of the school committee to budge or even offer an alternative assignment, our parents ended up pulling us from the school after the year was over.  Most of the kids who stayed their 8th grade year and once considered friends, I never saw or heard from again.  Others, I’ve reunited with via social media, but our lives still remain separate and tarnished by this extremely frustrating event.  My last year of middle school was spent at a public school, which until that point I had never experienced, full of unfamiliar faces and names.  I know if something of that magnitude were to happen in present day, it would be splattered across news outlets and social media.  What were we missing?  The good ol’ internet.  Telling that story still makes my stomach turn, because it was at age eleven that I received a small, yet real dose of what racism felt like.  I’ve learned it’s not only a prejudicial act, but it is rooted in using the prejudice to control the individual or group’s well-being.  In this case, the sensible thing to do would have been to allow the students who felt uncomfortable to simply substitute the assignment for another and let life resume at a somewhat normal pace.  But in this case the lack of flexibility, caused ten children of color and one white child to fail an assignment for literally no good reason, while proving to the remaining majority of white students that something like this is acceptable and budging is not an option.  It is unknown to me whether or not the assignment is still in circulation, but to my dismay, I did find out that the assignment was given to 7th graders in past years and it wasn’t refused until myself and a handful of others expressed our outrage.

In closing, I would hope that parents in the year 2016 are capable of exposing their children to people of varying social, religious, and ethnic backgrounds without fear or discomfort.  Teach them the differences between right and wrong, love and hate, and all of the fine lines in between that individuals skirt everyday to maintain a sense of “normalcy.”  A classroom is supposed to be a place of enlightenment and mental growth.  One assignment in a 7th grade history class in a small, private, Catholic kindergarten through 8th grade school; changed my way of thinking for the rest of my life.  I am hopeful that after having read these true accounts, your way of thinking may have been altered as well.