Hassan, Richard, Amari, Tyshawn, Cavell, Julius and Javaugn are heading off to middle school this week.
But before they settle into reading, writing essays, figuring out mean, median and mode in math, we caught up with them at their Denver summer camp focused on boys of color.
In between stretching silly-putty and spontaneous shadow boxing matches — we asked them for their thoughts on school and teachers — and what it’s like being 11 or 12 years old.
First, it’s a wild time. That’s because you’re still a kid, enjoying the silly freedoms of kid-dom, but you’re starting to sense more and more responsibilities on the horizon.
The boys say they love being able to explore their neighborhoods and have fun with their friends.
“Being 12 is really fun because you're athletic and like, still young,” said Tyshawn.
“And you’re almost a teenager,” adds Hassan.
Cavell said he's going through puberty so fast, “I feel like a 13-year-old already.”
For them, adulthood means paying bills.
“I mean, for how time is going, I'm probably going to start paying bills in a minute,” said Cavell.
The 11-year-olds in the group are feeling a little more nervous about the aging process probably because they’re just about to start middle school.
Being 11 is your first step into middle school, which is like a “big step going into your life,” said Javaugn.
“Being 11 is actually hard,” said Julius. “It's like you're basically like a grown person. You gotta start doing stuff, keep up with stuff. Listen to your mom like, do the dishes, take out the trash. It’s hard because you’re just going to middle school and you’re not prepared for that yet because you just got done with elementary school.”
They all say they do and don't want to grow up.
“I just want to stay a kid and have fun more,” said Amari, 12.
Still, he’s excited about getting older with more of the wide world opening up to him. But he also has this sense that the path he’s on could unravel at any moment.
“It's like if I don't do what I'm doing now, I might not grow up to be the person I want to be,” he said, referring to doing well in sports and school.
All of the boys say their goal is to be in the NBA, NFL or Major League Soccer. But electronics or the food industry, including farming, is their backup plan.
Their relationship with school is complicated
Twelve-year-old Hassan said school is cool, and he likes math because it’s easy for him. But he finds language arts challenging.
“All the writing and stuff, all the reading is too much.”
Cavell is short and to the point when asked what he likes and what’s challenging about school.
“One thing I like about school is making friends and the only thing that’s challenging is — everything,” he said.
Tyshawn likes science because he’s good at it.
“I know, like about space and about atoms and all that.”
Richard has a different take on school.
“I couldn’t survive school if I didn’t shadow box.”
They have to show me what shadowboxing is. Richard and Tyshawn demonstrate.
Traditional shadow boxing is a physical boxing workout, but this TikTok craze is kind of like the 2023 version of rock, paper, scissors. One boy points in one direction and tries to make his opponent look the same way. They take turns, doing increasingly complex combinations of moves, kind of like boxing. Richard thinks about it a lot at school.
“One thing that's hard is when I have to not shadow box because. like, the teachers really be hating and they be sending me to the deans because they say I'm not allowed to shadow box.”
He said his favorite moment at school is when the final bell rings. He even watches the clock in his final period.
And then there’s the teachers
The boys even have complicated thoughts about teachers. They definitely prefer teachers who take the time to clearly explain things and teachers who take the time to get to know them. Amari didn't like science class because of his teacher.
“Because she didn't take her time to help students and didn’t grade papers for people that had bad grades,” he said.
Hassan said a bad teacher is “someone who's always in a bad mood and takes their anger out on you.” A good teacher is “someone who is more patient, like a teacher who actually listens to what you’re trying to say.”
Tyshawn likes some teachers, others not so much.
He said some teachers overdo it, meaning “yelling at the whole class for a little mistake that anybody can make. The boys like teachers who are “chill.”
“Someone who understands where you're coming from and knows how to help you in the way you need, someone that cares and looks like you and helps you,” explained Tyshawn.
In this case, he means teachers who are Black like him.
"Most of the teachers I have come in contact with that were African American were, like, better teachers. They could understand me better and (know) how to teach me."
Amari adds on to that.
“They know how you learn and then they want you to achieve in your education … most of them know what I went through to get here.”
He shares, tentatively, what he means: racism. Tyshawn chimes in, his voice clear and strong. He explains that he and his Black classmates have experienced racism from some white teachers. He shared an incident.
“One of my classmates had dropped his pencil and a white teacher had said, 'You have to sit in the corner … you're, like, being bad.' And then, like, another kid that wasn't Black dropped his pencil and she was like, ‘Oh, it's OK, honey, just keep doing the test.’”
One of the other boys challenges him, wondering if that really happened.
“It happened in fifth grade, in art class,” he said decisively.
His tone and precision about when and where it happened shows an incident like that can have a lasting impact on students. Richard, the shadow boxer, said teachers, whatever their race, just need to try to show that they are interested in understanding their students, to not judge them if they get something wrong, and to not just worry about test scores.
“But also worry about how you are actually doing because I’ve had a lot of good teachers, even though some aren’t of color, my favorite teacher, he knew how to understand me even though he never came from where I came from.”
The boys recognize not all students are the easiest to get along with and sometimes waste their time. Javaugn hates it “when you just see a lot of people doing stupid stuff and you know they're going to get in trouble, but you still get annoyed at them doing it and it just gets on your nerves.”
And, of course, there are a few recommendations they have to improve school. They’d like longer breaks, keep recess, and a later start time.
“Kids don’t get the right average (recommended) sleep when they have to wake up at 6:30,” Amari said. (Middle and high schools this year have a later start time — no earlier than 8:20 a.m.)
As for school lunches, Javaugn said he likes the chicken sandwiches but the chicken nuggets need to be cooked more, and “I haven’t seen a salad at school.” He’s really excited about seeing his friends back at school but his last plea for the new school year — shorten the hours.
“I would say from 8 to ... hmmmm ... like 1 p.m.”
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