The experiences we have in childhood often impact the lives we live. I know that one such experience altered the trajectory of mine, fueling two passions – my love of teaching and my love for animals. It happened decades ago at Kester Avenue Elementary School while I was a student.
More than twenty years have passed since I became an educator. But recently, while in conversation with a progressive activist, where we were discussing the lack of Black male teachers in our public schools – I reflected on one of my favorite teachers, ironically, a Black man named Mr. White. I met Mr. White when I was a kid at Kester.
I never knew Mr. White’s first name. When you’re in the third grade it doesn’t occur to you to even ask. I only knew that when Mr. White showed up, I was in for a treat. Mr. White conducted a program that introduced elementary school children to exotic animals – animals he brought into the classroom once a week. This was a hands-on program and I loved it!!
I am a product of the Los Angeles Unified School District. I like to think that I am an example of what public education can produce. But throughout my elementary school years from K-12, I only had two male Black teachers, Mr. White who was only a visiting teacher once a week and Mr. Gregory, my geography teacher in high school.
Mr. Gregory taught the high school geography class I took only to meet the science requirement to graduate. In other words, it wasn’t a class I had a lot of interest in – to make matters worse it was my last class of the day. No one loved his class and even fewer gave their 100%. However Mr. Gregory also had a lasting impact on my life.
He was the only teacher to pull me, the only Black boy in the class, aside and tell me that I couldn’t get away with just being average. While I was doing the same half assed work as the rest of the students, Mr. Gregory made sure I knew that I wasn’t going to make it. He told me I needed to work harder if I expected to do anything with my life. He told me, as a Black man, I didn’t have the luxury to just be present. He said life would eventually catch up with me if I didn’t go to college and get a degree.
Being 17 at the time, I didn’t fully understand what he meant but I kinda did. Through eyewitness observations I watched as many of my Black and Latino friends were profiled by teachers and the police. We didn’t have the same school experiences my white and Asian friends had.
Today, not only am I an educator but I am also deeply involved in the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the second largest teacher’s union in the country as well as the California Teachers Association (CTA) where I advocate for the voice of public school teachers with our elected political representatives.
Perhaps because of my own personal journey, I deeply believe that K-12 public education can prepare our students to enter into four year undergraduate programs and do well. I went on to gain a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. But I would be remiss if I didn’t raise the issue – the elephant in the room – the lack of Black male teachers.
Like most school districts throughout the United States, LAUSD lacks Black male teachers. In a recent interview, president of UTLA, Cecily Myart-Cruz told the LA Progressive that there are 315,000 educators in the state of California but less than 1% of them are Black men.
I am a member of that 1%. I am a Black male teacher. Decades ago I was a Black boy who waited eagerly each week to see Mr. White and his travelling menagerie and later, a Black teenaged high school senior who took strong advice from Mr. Gregory. I often wonder what direction my life would have taken without them.
Wade Kyle is a long-time educator in Los Angeles, who has also taught in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. He is active in United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), California’s Teachers Association (CTA) and in Democratic Party activities. Wade also serves as LA Progressive’s community editor. He works tirelessly on education, labor, and environmental issues.