Robin sat in the front row of my ninth-grade English class, turning a pyramid-shaped Rubik’s-type puzzle. Finals were coming and the class learning objective was an uninspired “Prepare For Finals,” but still I felt anger creeping up. How dare she! Didn’t she know this would be graded?
I knew the questions I would hit her with: Have you completed the assignment? Did you check your answers? What else should you be studying?
I took a step toward her, but then stopped.
In fairness to her, Rubik’s puzzles abound in my class. I have them because a puzzle is nothing but a question (How do I...?) composed of a thousand other questions (What should this...? What happens if I...?). The prospect of being unable to answer questions, being shown to not know, intimidates many to the point that they never try. No matter the subject, confronting this fear of questioning is a vital challenge for a learner.
Robin’s brown eyes were intent, her brows furrowed as the colored triangles clicked in her fingers, a mild smile on her lips. It occurred to me that she was at innocent work, the type of work black girls are denied in so many academic spaces.
According to the recent report Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood, black girls are seen as less innocent than white girls. Participants in the study documented in the report—adults of various racial and ethnic backgrounds and educational levels from across the U.S.—judged black girls, starting at age 5, to be older, to need less support, to know more about adult topics, to need less protection, and to be more sexually aware than white girls.
One consequence of this is that black girls are disciplined at twice the rate of white girls. Another is that black girls are less likely to have their questions honored in academic spaces, and a classroom that doesn’t recognize the innocence of a child cannot truly understand the child’s questions. A black girl’s questions are more likely to be considered tools of rebellion than of inquiry.
Making Space for the Joy of Discovery
At the beginning of the year, I have students write a letter of introduction. Robin had said her goal was to “strive for greatness,” but that she didn’t deal with frustration well. This was true. She often rolled her eyes when I assigned homework. If I didn’t help her first when she raised her hand, she sighed like a pachyderm. She hardly ever missed an assignment, but it was all transactional, less an academic exploration and more like paying down a phone bill.
Robin was one of my hardest working students, but without a space for innocence and inquiry, she struggled to see the joy of discovery as a possibility in school. In my experience, Robin is typical of many black female students.
Although she said she liked to write, Robin confided that she had never earned an A on an essay and didn’t think it would ever happen. Looking at her work, I could tell she needed help with sentence structure and elaborating on evidence, but her biggest barrier was that she had been taught to approach her writing like she was filling out a graphic organizer or following a list of instructions. It was hard for her to connect to what she was writing because it didn’t originate in her own questions.
When we read Romeo and Juliet, I gave the students a series of open question frames like “What does the relationship between _____ and _____ teach us about the theme of _____?” or “What does the change we see in _____ teach us about the theme of _____?” I had them insert various characters and themes to produce as many questions as they could. It was messier than a simple prompt but allowed students like Robin to develop and pursue questions that were important to them.
With the authority of the writing shifted back to students, Robin worked diligently to perfect her paper. She agonized over writing the hook, a skill which had stumped her all year. At one point, Robin asked me what she should write. I gave her some pointers, but she looked dissatisfied.
“Just tell me what to write!” she said.
I told her that it sounded like she had a writer’s problem and that she was more than capable of solving it. She sat for a while and then wrote: “Most men think being a man means showing no weakness. Most men think being a man means being violent. Most men think being a man means being in control. In this patriarchal world where gender and violence play a big role, men are mostly the cause of tragedy.” She wrote an excellent paper. Not only was it strong in its use of evidence, but the voice displayed a sense of discovery about the material and an enthusiasm for its central question. Without a doubt, it was an A.
Standing in class at the end of the year, watching Robin manipulate the colored tiles of that puzzle, I thought about how much we use the buzzword inquiry to describe the purpose of education. But inquiry is meaningless if we can’t recognize the innocence of our children.
If we teach them that questions are important, vital to learning, to living, and then don’t create spaces that honor their innocence, we’re not just wasting our most precious resource, we’re committing an act of unspeakable violence. Black girls are, by and large, succeeding in the academic sphere, but when their innocence is not honored, they are robbed of education’s highest purpose: the unfettered joy of discovery.