A 13-Year-Old's Slavery Analogy Raises Some Uncomfortable Truths in School

13-year-old Jada Williams' essay compared Douglass' story about being kept from reading with her experience in a struggling school.

In a bold comparative analysis of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Jada Williams, a 13-year old eighth grader at School #3 in Rochester, New York, asserted that in her experience, today's education system is a modern-day version of slavery. According to the Fredrick Douglass Foundation of New York, the schools' teachers and administrators were so offended by Williams' essay that they began a campaign of harassmentkicking her out of class and trying to suspend her—that ultimately forced her parents to withdraw her from the school.


In her essay, which was written for a contest, Williams reflected on what Douglass heard his slave master, Mr. Auld, telling his wife after catching her teaching Douglass how to read. "If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him," Auld says. "It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master."

Williams wrote that overcrowded, poorly managed classrooms prevent real learning from happening and thus produces the same results as Mr. Auld's outright ban. She wrote that her white teachers—the vast majority of Rochester students are black and Hispanic, but very few teachers are people of color—are in a "position of power to dictate what I can, cannot, and will learn, only desiring that I may get bored because of the inconsistency and the mismanagement of the classroom."

Instead of truly teaching, most teachers simply "pass out pamphlets and packets" and then expect students to complete them independently, Williams wrote. But this approach fails, she concluded, because "most of my peers cannot read and or comprehend the material that has been provided." As a result, she continued, not much has changed since the time of Douglass, "just different people, different era" and "the same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man." Williams called for her fellow students to "start making these white teachers accountable for instructing you" and challenged teachers to do their jobs. "What merit is there," she asked, if teachers have knowledge and are "not willing to share because of the color of my skin?"

According to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Williams' parents transferred her to another school, then withdrew her altogether. The conservative Frederick Douglass Foundation gave Williams a special award, saying that her essay "actually demonstrates that she understood the autobiography." They have also reached out to the school for an explanation of the 13-year-old's treatment.

While the issues Williams raises are controversial, even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has acknowledged that closing the achievement gap requires more black educators in the classroom. But because the large majority of current teachers are white, they have a responsibility to figure out how to be effective with children of color.

Given that only 19 percent of School #3's eighth graders were proficient in language arts last year (and just 13 percent in math)—well below the state average of 60 percent—it's clear that the school and its teachers need to change their approach. Attempting to silence Williams by branding her a troublemaker and driving her off campus isn't the answer. Now she is walking away from this controversy convinced that white teachers don't want to educate black students at all.

As the parent of two black boys I know firsthand that white teachers can excel at teaching black children. What set those outstanding teachers apart was their genuine desire to see my boys succeed and hard work to build relationships with them and with our family. What if Williams' English teacher had used her essay to turn a critical eye on her teaching practice and her expectations for black students? What if the school had used it as a jumping-off point to start a student-centered dialogue about what everyone—teachers, students, and parents—must do to improve the struggling school? Until that happens in our schools, America's achievement gap will endure.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Articles
Creative Commons

National Tell a Joke Day dates back to 1944 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was having a meeting with Vice-President, Henry Wallace. The two men were tired and depressed due to the stress caused by leading a country through world war.

During a lull in the meeting, Wallace said, "Frank, to cheer you up I have a joke I'd like to share."

"Let's have it, Henry," Roosevelt replied while ashing his cigarette.

"Why did the chicken cross the road?" Wallace asked. "Not sure," Roosevelt replied.

"To get to the other side," Wallace responded.

Roosevelt laughed so hard that the bourbon he was drinking sprayed out of his nose and onto the floor of the oval office.

RELATED: A comedian shuts down a sexist heckler who, ironically, brought his daughters to the show

The joke was so funny, and did such a great job at lightening both their moods, Roosevelt proclaimed that every year, August 16 would be National Tell a Joke Day.

Just kidding.

Nobody knows why National Tell a Joke Day started, but in a world where the President of the United States is trying to buy Greenland, "Beverly Hills, 90210" is back on TV, and the economy is about to go off a cliff, we could all use a bit of levity.

To celebrate National Tell a Joke Day, the people on Twitter responded with hundreds of the corniest dad jokes ever told. Here are some of the best.

Culture

The Judean date palm was once common in ancient Judea. The tree itself was a source of shelter, its fruit was ubiquitous in food, and its likeness was even engraved on money. But the plant became extinct around 500 A.D., and the prevalent palm was no more. But the plant is getting a second chance at life in the new millennium after researchers were able to resurrect ancient seeds.

Two thousand-year-old seeds were discovered inside a pottery jar during an archaeological excavation of Masada, a historic mountain fortress in southern Israel. It is believed the seeds were produced between 155 B.C. and 64 A.D. Those seeds sat inside a researcher's drawer in Tel Aviv for years, not doing anything.

Elaine Solowey, the Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura in Israel, wondered if she could revive the Judean Date Palm, so in 2005, she began to experiment. "I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time. How could it be?" Solewey said.

Keep Reading Show less
Science

There's been an uptick in fake emotional support animals (ESAs), which has led some airlines to crack down on which animals can and can't fly. Remember that emotional support peacock?

But some restrictions on ESAs don't fly with the Department of Transportation (DOT), leading them to crack down on the crack down.

Delta says that there has been an 84 percent increase in animal incidents since 2016, thanks in part to the increase of ESAs on airplanes. Last year, Delta airlines banned pit bulls and pit bull-related dog breeds after two airline staff were bitten by the breed while boarding a flight from Atlanta to Tokyo.

"We must err on the side of safety. Most recently, two Delta employees were bit by a pit bull traveling as a support animal last week. We struggled with the decision to expand the ban to service animals, knowing that some customers have legitimate needs, but we have determined that untrained, pit bull-type dogs posing as both service and support animals are a potential safety risk," Delta told People regarding the new rule.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture
via Liam Beach / Facebook

Trying to get one dog to sit still and make eye contact with a camera for more than half a second is a low-key miracle. Lining up 16 dogs, on steps, and having them all stare at the camera simultaneously is the work of a God-like dog whisperer.

This miracle worker is Liam Beach, a 19-year-old animal management graduate from Cardiff, Wales. A friend of his dared him to attempt the shot and he accepted the challenge.

"My friend Catherine challenged me to try to get all of my lot sat on the stairs for a photo. She said, 'I bet you can't pull it off,' so I thought 'challenge accepted,'" he said, accoriding to Paws Planet.

Keep Reading Show less
Culture
via Rails-to-Trails Conservancy

Americans on both sides of the political aisle can agree on one thing: our infrastructure needs a huge upgrade. While politicians drag their feet on high-speed rail projects, fixing bridges, and building new airports, one amazing project is picking up steam.

The Great American Rail-Trail, a bike path that will connect Washington state to Washington, D.C., is over 50% complete.

The trail is being planned by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit that is working with local governments to make the dream a reality.

Keep Reading Show less
Travel