This essay was originally published by The Beat Within, a justice system writing workshop.
I’ve heard that students do not drop out of school, they’re “pushed out.” I don’t like that phrase, “pushed out,” because it’s an oversimplification of a very complicated process. Before today, I would’ve said that no one pushed me out of school; I ran as hard as I could to get away from getting up every morning at 5:00 a.m. to drag myself to a classroom to listen to the enemy talk about things that didn’t matter to me.
Then I thought about a book I read by Andy Andrews, called “The Butterfly Effect.” It’s a fifteen minute read that talks about how the flapping of a butterfly wing in this room can stir air, grow and grow until a hurricane forms in India. Ridiculous, right? The scientist who discovered “the butterfly effect” is real, and it not only applies to butterflies but to everything. Including people. The book’s point: Everything you do matters.
So now I’m thinking, “What is the butterfly wing that stirred the winds of my life and culminated in me deciding that my teachers were my enemies? What made me want to run from school?”
In the seventh grade I attended a predominantly white private school (it would be the second predominantly white private school from which I would be expelled). The school suspended me repeatedly for wearing a Malcolm X t-shirt and hat. I refused to stop wearing them because they represented the only history, the only identity I had. The school eventually expelled me.
This is when school became an institution controlled by my enemy, by people hostile to my heritage and thus hostile to me. This is when I decided I hated school, and this is when I decided I’d get expelled from every school in my district until there were no more schools for me to attend. Not a wise decision, but children generally make unwise decisions. They’re not adults; we can’t treat them like adults and expect them to take charge of their lives.
The momentum of one push, from one teacher and a principal, culminated two years later in me eventually dropping out of junior high school and becoming part of the 75% of black boys who drop out of school and end up incarcerated. The Butterfly Effect.
I eventually succeeded in my mission to get kicked out of every school that would have me. And what I needed wasn’t for people to stop pushing me out (because very few did). What I needed was for someone to grab hold of me and refuse to let go. To discover why I’d gone from a straight A student to the kid who strangled other kids in the hallways to get laughs from the other kids who thought school was the enemy.
The last chance anyone had to grab hold of me was in the eighth grade. I attended Edna Brewer Junior High School in Oakland, and the principal called the police on me because a very inappropriate game that a female classmate and I had been playing over two weeks culminated in me squeezing her butt. I was told that I was going to juvenile hall for sexual assault. The principal sat me in his office and told me to wait there until the police came.
I ran from his office. From that point, I was finished with school. Today, I know it’s unacceptable to squeeze a woman’s butt without her permission, but then all I knew was that school wasn’t a safe place for me. When I returned to school weeks later, I didn’t go to any classes because attendance was a way for the school to track me and arrest me if they police were still looking for me.
Instead, I hung out with the other kids cutting class, and among them, I immersed myself in more negative influences. The winds that had been building since my stand for my Malcolm X t-shirt were nearing their hurricane force. I would soon drop out of school and go to juvenile hall for burglary. In juvenile hall I became more likely to come to prison – which I did. I became more likely to learn more criminal behavior – which I did. The Butterfly Effect.
By this time, I was considered a throw-away child, so no one grabbed hold of me. I was too young to grab hold of myself. My journey through the school-to-prison pipeline was complicated, more complex even than I’ve explained in this essay. Being “pushed out” hardly describes it. But being grabbed hold of might’ve saved me.