I wanted to start my review of Jason Reynolds’ Miles Morales: A Spider-Man Novel with a slightly relevant anecdote on an experience I had as a teenager.
As an adult that was once a Black kid in the US education system (in Florida, natch), one racist teacher can make your school life a living hell even if they’re not part of a creepy (but absolutely plausible) plot to disenfranchise and subjugate Black people. So I wanted to talk about that.
But this got long and no one wants to read this sort of thing literally on top of a review so…
Ten years ago I was a senior in a mediocre charter high school. I was sixteen and had just skipped a grade (taking 11th/12th grade English at the same time) so that I could graduate early. Up until this point, all of my teachers were aware that I had “Bored Genius Syndrome” and that if they didn’t keep me engaged in the school work, something else would.
So they kept me busy.
Up until my senior year of high school (partially though it, in fact), I was surrounded by teachers that maybe didn’t get me, but supported me. All of those teachers were people of color.
Partway through the year, the eleventh grade English teacher left. To this day I’m not sure why. But she was very quickly replaced by the white mother of one of my classmates. I don’t know if she was qualified and half the teachers at that school weren’t, but that woman was determined to remake me in her image from day one.
You know how I said that I was easily bored by school?
By the second or third week, I had read the entire textbook for eleventh grade literature. For fun. So by the time the new teacher showed up, I wasn’t interested in revisiting it. The previous teacher had let me read whatever I wanted during our silent reading time (which… we were still having at 15/16) and this was right at the start of my obsession with Laurell K. Hamilton.
So there I am reading Cerulean Sins and living for the vampire drama, when this teacher snatches the book away from me. No joke. She then proceeded to lecture me about how I should be reading the textbook. When I tell her that I finished it months ago, she didn’t believe me. She didn’t believe that I could read fast enough to finish a textbook that was like at least a pound easy. She didn’t believe that I was smart enough to comprehend the book if I was reading it that fast.
She called me a “skimmer”.
Even though she was holding a brick of a novel that I was halfway through after only a few days of reading it around school.
It took some yelling from my classmates, who I’d known since 2003 and who wouldn’t want to deal with me while I was bored, to get her to stop lecturing me. It took a classroom full of teenagers to get this white woman to stop trying to humiliate me.
Then there was “The Cursive Incident”.
Look, I can’t read or write in cursive. Not proper fancy cursive with all of those loops. My brain literally can’t make sense of the words. And by 2006, I largely didn’t have to. Teachers were using powerpoints and lecturing while we typed all of our work or wrote in print. No one would think of making a student write in cursive…
Except for that teacher.
So she gives us this paper to write and then demands that it’s written in cursive. I, being the darling person I am, kindly inform her that I am not going to be able to do that, but I’d be happy to write it by hand since that’s what I thought was her goal.
I refused to accept her refusal. Loudly and repeatedly.
It got to the point where my mom had to come to the school and talk to her and the principal because we were both raising such a stink about it. She used the words and tone that have been used against Black students for decades. Words that framed me as an obnoxious pest that didn’t respect her classroom authority and got aggressive even as she tried to act like I was wrong for basically… needing accommodations.
In the end, my mom and I won the battle, but there were so many little fights until I graduated and, not having a supportive English teacher really messed me up. My English teachers in middle and high school were always the ones I gravitated towards and their classrooms were safe spaces for me.
I didn’t have that in my senior year. The twelfth grade English teacher was fun, but I was subject to some of the worst bullying ever in her class and she was too flighty to stop it. And I mean… I don’t like interacting with people who question my intelligence even once. That teacher kept doing it.
So I wasn’t comfortable with her even after she realized that, because people genuinely liked me (or were afraid of my mom), she couldn’t really do anything to me aside from annoy me on the regular. (And she couldn’t give me detentions because well… it was a mediocre charter school and I don’t think we had detentions post-2004. I wouldn’t have gone any way but still…)
One thing that I remember, that still seriously pisses me off, is that she had the nerve to come up to me, my family, and my sort of boyfriend at the time after graduation. She hugged me (hugged me) and told me all kinds of garbage about how she knew I could do it and how she was just trying to push me to be my best.
It’s how she rewrote our brief history that angers me to this day.
She took so much credit for my success (for my 3.8 GPA, for my letter from Harvard, for my PSAT scores) that I half expected her to take the credit for my sort-of-boyfriend or claim to be my new mother. Especially when she talked down to my mom like my mom hasn’t been busting her back to keep me interested in school since I was like eleven and told her I’d rather die than go back to the crappy middle school I attended my first year in Florida.
So what’s this got to do with Miles Morales?
In Jason Reynold’s book, Miles has a teacher named Mr. Chamberlain. Mr. Chamberlain is basically… the nastiest racist ever. No spoilers in this because they’ll all be in longer review I’m working on, but he’s literal garbage and I hate him.
Compared to Miles, I had it easy.
I had white liberal racism rather than a dude basically calling for the return of slavery at one point and working to flood the school to prison pipeline.
I had a teacher that took my teenage rebellion (which was so dang mild as to be literally inoffensive) as a true threat to her authority.
I had a middle aged white lady who had adopted two children of color so of course she couldn’t be racist even as she made it her goal to “push” me by constantly questioning my intelligence and ignoring the fact that I could run circles around her when it came to literature.
I didn’t have a Mr. Chamberlain.
I had a… Ms. Whatsherface.
I’m going to talk about this more in upcoming reviews/commentary for the book, but seeing Miles deal with systematic racism stemming from the education system — one of many things in the novel that echoed experiences I’ve had — was amazing and moving.