Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Problems of Black Youth Are ... Basic!

Lennox Farrell, Toronto, Ontario

Greg is not his real name.
And he could be a student in any school.

But he is very much for real about his feelings of being in Grade Ten Basic classes. He is for real about arriving a couple of minutes late each day for class. He is chronically late because of his lingering in the washroom, risking another detention for being late, again. He hides until the hallway is clear so that other students, including other Black students will not know that he is entering the hated Basic class. He also rushes to leave class before the dismissal bell for the same reason.

Slow in arriving to class; swift in leaving it.

Greg also has problems walking the hallway, and dreads going home with the textbooks that the other students can deduce are not Advanced, nor General level. Students are wily about finding out these kinds of things. About finding out where other students are in the school hierarchy and pecking order. And for all their freshness and innocence, they are cruel to each other. And he schemes to get non-Basic texts to display on the outside of the Basic texts. He carries these defensive texts - a shield against the barbs, name-calling, and the possibility that others, especially girls will know the grim truth.

That Greg is Basic!

That is how, at the beginning of the term, in the first classes for the year he introduces himself to you, a teacher, someone whom he accepts will know, anyhow this badge of shame that at his already coarsened 16 years of age he must wear. He is not Canadian. He is not a student. He is not human. He is Basic. "Sir," he would say with crushing finality, "I am Basic." And thus, every school day he spends enormous amounts of energy - physical, and mental - in his hourly attempts to escape this desolation.

There are others like him. Other basic students, who have given up trying to hide. They accept this category without outward show of resistance. Like cattle led knowingly to slaughter, but unable, or unwilling, to resist anymore. These other Basic students cause Greg problems, since they no longer try to disguise their entrances to their Basic classes. Greg has problems with them when they leave the room and forget to close the door quickly. He rushes to it. No, he charges at it, bitterly slamming it shut as one would close a door in winter against a frigid blast. For these and other reasons, they bicker constantly, taunting each other as others taunt them.

They fight.

Greg has these problems despite the fact that there is no other community in this country that dedicates as much volunteer time as does the Black community in consultations, workshops and meetings with Ministers of Education, with Directors of Education, with Superintendents in Boards of Education, with Principals, with teachers, with political representatives, like trustees, and with Ministry officials. The only other meetings that surpass these meetings are the number of times that students like Greg see principals. Greg is sent to the office so often that he will sometimes refuse on other occasions to go there and get something as innocuous as some chalk. If the Principal sees him, he will get in trouble, he says.

He will later have the same relationship with the Police. His is a life in which every new day is another ambush. And days stretch to months, and months to years in which there is an evolution of declining expectations, for him by others; and of him for himself.

He is given options that are constantly being reduced. And he does what a normal human being, faced with abnormality would do. He rebels. He becomes obnoxious. He may traffic in illegal drugs. He could use a weapon on another Black youth. For a dollar, or less.

The life of a young, Black male he has already learnt, is, unlike that of a white male, cheap and expendable. Thus, along with the violence of the Police forces, he contributes to a criminally absurd phenomenon in North America - the one in which the leading cause of death among young, Black males is homicide.

Greg is among the many young Black people who, on average, have a lower level of education than their parents: the only ethno-cultural group to be so accursed in Canada. A Child of official rejection, if his parents had emigrated before him, he might have had to wait from the age of a baby until he had painfully reached that of a stranger before the immigration process allowed him in. Or, regardless of how many generations his ancestors had lived in Canada, he would still be from somewhere else. Like Jamaica, or "the islands, aye mohn?!"

Despite this, he is so much for real that he is among the young Black people who, despite being streamed into Basic level programmes because authorities judge them unable to "understand" advanced poetry in school, go on, outside of school to create international art forms like Rap, and Breakdancing!

Despite this, too, he does not think much of his own opinions. Nobody listens to him, he says. He is being prepared to be self-disrespecting, and subsequently disrespectful to others - especially if they are also Black.

And before he enters the world of the young adult, he would have likely become part of the anti-social phalanx of Black youth who rudely challenge parents, and bus drivers, as well as teachers, janitors, and other authority figures in, and outside the school; leaving the caring teachers to sorrow; and the uncaring ones to retreat to staff-rooms and possibly contemplate the validity of Rushton, the Western professor's vile assessment of Black people.

As if to prove these racial theories correct, Greg would be more associated with teachers in Physical Education, and detention, than with teachers of Physics, Chemistry, and Math.

Unable to further a career for himself, Greg's general distress, the abnormal expectations had of him, as well as high levels of unemployment among Black youth - as high as 53% in cities like Montreal, and 70% in South Preston, Nova Scotia - will create employment opportunities and career options for guards in Malls, for Police officers, for court clerks, for parole officers, for prison staff, for psychiatrists, for newspaper columnists ...

Greg lives in a society that espouses individual liberties. But it is also one in which the reality is that individual value is based on personal wealth and on the ethno-cultural community with which one is identified. Ontario society is one that still has options, however. It can still choose to go the route of denial, and pay the price of other societies that had no sense of consequence. Or it can choose to be sensible and provide all its people with a sense of ownership over the institutions that shape our lives and affect our livelihoods.

Greg is not his real name.

And he could be a student in any school in Metropolitan Toronto.

But he is for real.

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