An Ode to the Education Translators
As of late, there has been a lot of news about courageous parents standing up for better educational opportunities for Black kids. From the Powerful Parent Network to the Oakland Reach, parents have been making headlines on the frontlines. It has been beautiful to watch. It makes me reflect on my own experience in grade school and just how much I would have benefited had my parents been involved in one of these types of organizations. However, I had to navigate education pretty much on my own and there are tons of students just like me that have had to do the same. I call them Education Translators.
An Education Translator is a student that leads their own academic navigation and tends to translate the education process for their home and/or community.
For this concept, I borrowed from my time as a social worker. I often worked with immigrant families where only the child spoke English. In my work with those families, children as young as 10 years old were translating complicated issues for their parents such as paying bills and handling medical treatments. These are huge responsibilities but we do what we gotta do and we always have.
So this post is to lift up the Education Translators around this country. These are the students that fight with their counselors to ensure they have the right classes and aren’t being tracked into poorer performing classes that often do not lead to college access. These are the students that ask where the money is going in the schools. These are the students that want to know the graduation rates as well as the rates of students that are accepted into four-year universities.
I remember vividly being a new student in high school. During middle school, I took both Algebra and Geometry. I got As in both so in my mind, I should have been in higher math classes when I got to high school. Well, they placed me in Algebra to which I responded, calmly at first, “Umm, I’m not supposed to be here.” I explained my case to the teacher and she suggested that I speak with the counselor. That counselor had zero interest in hearing me out. I was a 14-year-old kid that was getting in the way of whatever she needed to accomplish that day.
But I didn’t stop. I interrupted my class every time they sent me back. I would sit and wait for the counselor in her office. I explained to my parents the situation to which they did nothing. So I kept being disruptive.
Listen, I need you all to understand something. I did not live one of those ‘sitcom lives’ where kids just talk back to their parents while walking away from them. Nah. My pops was a big dude and would whoop my ass if the situation called for it. This ain’t an opportunity to make a case against corporal punishment or judge my pop either. Now I know times have changed, along with my socioeconomic status and the tools I have at my disposal which would allow me to discipline my child in a much more progressive way, but dammit those ass-whoopings saved my life but that’s a different story for a different day.
So, at the risk of getting an epic ass whooping for talking back to my teachers, my counselors, and my parents, I kept pushing. I held firm,
…I’m not retaking classes I already passed. I’m not about to miss out on honors and AP classes because I know how important they are to get into college. I can do this work with my eyes closed. You can’t just ignore me because I’m a kid.
I eventually wore them down. I did not get everything I fought for but I did get placed in the ‘good track’ called The Academy at school where I got to take AP and Honors courses with a few other Black folks and the Asian folks. I also acknowledge there is a ton wrong with what I just said. The system of sorting can change lives in a real way. The vast majority of The Academy went straight to four-year universities while far too many of the students not tracked with us had to start out in community colleges if they even pursued college at all.
That is just a snippet of my story, however, there are millions of kids that are forced to be Education Translators in their own lives today. I work with a ton of them now through the organization I started, Energy Convertors. Our students fight to improve the system, but they also spend a ton of time ensuring students know what they need and know how to accomplish what they need to accomplish.
This is not fair.
Let me repeat this, THIS IS NOT FAIR. No student should have to do this, but it is necessary. Many students can’t wait around for the adults to figure it out. This isn’t an indictment on parents either. That is why I used the case of my own. My parents both already had jobs. They actually quite trusted the education system. They believed if they fed me, put clothes on my back, and made sure I was respectful, then schools would do their job and teach me. Neither of my parents went to college, they knew nothing about the application process. In fact, it was a struggle every year to get their financial information for financial aid once I was actually in college. They didn’t understand why “them white folks needed to be all up in they [sic] business” My parents did the best they could with what they had.
Identifying and Supporting your Education Translators
So now that you know these Education Translators exist, how can you offer them your support? What we try to do at my organization is continuously build their agency while also impacting the system in a way that doesn’t require them to shoulder such burdens.
Here are some tips to identify and support these amazing young people in your school, neighborhood, or home:
- Encourage their voices and highlight this as a leadership quality. Speaking up for yourself and your family is a huge quality that can serve anyone well in adulthood. Don’t run away from young people like this, embrace them. You are witnessing the infancy of a great leadership potential.
- Actually listen. These are the true end-users of education. The product of school is best described through the experiences of students. However, we listen to so-called experts, teachers, pastors, and a bevy of other adults before actually listening to students.
- Lovingly correct them if needed. Passion does not always mean correct which is fine. No one expects these kids to know everything about everything. Correct them when they need to be corrected while continuing to stoke their passion for advocacy. When it is done right, you’ll be respected for life.
- Actually improve systems so these kids get the chance to actually be kids. Yeah, umm, just actually and finally fix this slow, racist, hyper-political, run-down environment-having, dream-killing, 2% Black-male-teacher having, lacking-relevant-subjects-for-living-life-in-today’s-world-trash-ass schools. Basically, students and their parents are carrying the water for folks that actually get paid to carry the water.