When I was in pre-school, I had a teacher I did not get along with. I dubbed her “Yellow-Card Theresa” because she gave me a lot of “yellow cards” or disciplinary notes that would go home to my parents if I got into trouble.
I railed against her while in the confines of my home in front of the adoring audience of my parents. And also not in the confines of my home but right in front of her, too. Oh the injustice of not being able to climb UP the slide first and to be punished when my friend Ryan and I bit each other over the competition, I thought.
My mom has been cleaning the house lately and stumbled upon two artifacts from this period in my life: two yellow cards in what we assume is Theresa’s handwriting. She sadly didn’t sign the cards.
The cards showed up in my mailbox just a few days after mom’s rediscovery. Pulling these cards out of the envelope I burst out laughing. My favorite part is definitely her outrage that I told her “No!” when she asked me to leave the science area. Did she work with five-year-olds? What kid that age would exit gracefully after squirting a teacher with a dropper? I also found the detail of “supposed to be helping clean up” hilarious; as if tackling and laying on my friend weren’t bad enough, I also wasn’t cleaning.
Over the years, these events have coalesced into an element of my narrative — I was a child who threw temper-tantrums that could last an hour, couldn’t read well until third grade, but managed to pull it together, love learning, go to an elite college, etc. Though I still chafe at authority, and pre-school would not be my last run-in with school discipline, it was the first. It formed part of my origin story, a founding example of my frustration with injustice, albeit petty, personal, and warped.
I set the cards aside and started cooking dinner, still mulling them over. And then it hit me. These are artifacts of my privilege.
First, I attended pre-school starting at a very early age that, “Yellow-Card Theresa” notwithstanding, had some lovely and competent teachers. Pre-school is expensive and Head Start slots are limited.
Second, pre-school students of color are suspended at staggering rates. (I mean anything greater than approximately zero would be staggering because, let’s remember, these are children who typically tell their age with the fingers on one hand. As Secretary of Education Duncan put it succinctly: it is “mind-boggling.” )
Third, pre-school students of color are disproportionately tracked into special education programs but recent research argues that their access is troublingly limited — their behavior is criminalized instead of being treated.
I could have received more severe discipline or tracking given the level of my insubordination and my teacher’s frustration with it.
But instead, my parents speak English, are white, are college educated, had time, worked and lived in easy access to my school, remembered positive experiences in school in their own past, were confident that this was a normal part of child development, were not afraid that if this behavior weren’t squashed now I might become a high school dropout or be shot as a teenager, could discuss my behavior with my pediatrician or my grandfather, a pediatrician. They could see it as funny.
They did not see it as: evidence that the system was stacked against me, as evidence that the “experts” were right and I was a bad child, as an event that they did not have the resources to handle, indicative of their own bad parenting.
I did not attend one of those pre-schools you read about in the NYT that cost as much as a year at a private college. But I didn’t have to in order for my experience to be brimming with privilege.