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For At-Risk Students, School Mother Knows Best

I'm a "school mom" to two unrelated African American boys at my school. It's a term of endearment, and the card I use when I really want them to listen and do what I say. I code switch and speak to them in a tone and vernacular that they are accustomed to hearing at home. Sometimes, I just give them that look and they get the message.

Being the only African American teacher in my school comes with an added, self-imposed responsibility. I feel I need to go the extra mile to help the black students assimilate to a school culture that is often unlike what they experience at home.

The turn of phrase sprung up when one of the boys, a rambunctious 6th grader, told me "You said that just like my mom." I jokingly replied, "I am your mom—your school mom!" I didn't expect him to take me seriously. A week later, I saw his mother at dismissal and she told me that her son had been calling me his "school mom" around the house. At first I was confused, but then I remembered my off-the-cuff remark. His mother told me that she appreciated me keeping a close eye on him at school.

I love Chicago, but it's an extremely segregated city. The euphemism is that Chicago is a "city of neighborhoods," but in practicality it means that each ethnicity generally lives in its own neighborhood, its own city. I'm a neighborhood girl, too. I could afford to live in some of the safer, white communities on the North Side, but I've chosen to live on the South Side, not far from where I grew up, facing the social joys and ills of the community each time I leave my front door. Again, I have a deep conviction that my presence and engagement is part of the solution.

So by Chicago standards, the student population of my school is rather diverse: About 70 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black, 12 percent white, and 5 percent Asian. The common denominator is that about 87 percent of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Unfortunately, we see the weedy seeds of racial prejudice sprouting up even among our youngest students.

The school administration has brought in professional development training to make the staff aware of incidents of racially motivated bullying and to give teachers tools to properly address the issue, like using the Teaching Tolerance curriculum. In the process, many of us teachers have had to examine our hearts and acknowledge our own racial biases, as well.

Which is why I am the proud "school mom" of two very bright but cleverly mischievous black middle school boys. They have shared that they sometimes feel misunderstood and targeted at school, and I am there to help them process those feelings and reach out to the administration for help.

Still, the boys also know that I see right through their excuses. I tell them that academic excellence and civil responsibility have no skin color. And while they may try to fool everyone else, they have learned that they can't fool Ms. Rhames.

After all, school mother knows best.

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