Second grade was a formative year for David Jones. His most salient memory was the first day of school. On the car ride in, he was anxious and doing his best to memorize his aunt's home address in Johnson County, Kansas.
Jones didn’t live with his aunt, though. He and his mom lived in neighboring Wyandotte County. But that 40-minute drive between his mom and his aunt’s house meant a world of difference when it came to school systems. Johnson County schools had a lot more funding, especially while Jones was growing up there in the mid-90s and early 2000s.
“It was a very affluent county,” said Jones. “The elementary school was well-resourced in a way that I wasn’t used to school being. We had a brand new gym and computers in every classroom.”
Jones remembered being the only black student in his elementary school class, a distinction that made him feel different and isolated among his peers.
But despite his discomfort, Jones said he understood why his mom wanted him to go to that school. She was a single parent and considered the more affluent and white community as a place of safety.
“She didn’t want me to have to go through some of the things that other young black men in that neighborhood were going through,” said Jones of his neighborhood in Kansas City. “She didn’t want to put me in a position where that would become my course in life.”
Still, life at the predominantly white school was hard for Jones. He said he was constantly getting in trouble for little things like wandering around the classroom after finishing a reading assignment early.
“I remember seeing my black identity as something to get past as opposed to a resource,” said Jones.
Jones only spent one semester in the Johnson County school system. His mother withdrew him mid-year, after several months of receiving nearly constant behavior citations.
The decision was a relief for Jones, but the idea of attending school near his home in Wyandotte County still made him nervous. Throughout that first semester, Jones said he was teased by several kids from his neighborhood. They’d tell him he wouldn’t survive if he went to the school they went to and that he’d get bullied or beaten up everyday.
“I remember hearing that kind of thing as a kid and being like ‘oh no, I don’t want to go there,’ ” said Jones. “I was, to an extent, afraid of my own people.”
But Jones’ first day at Hazel Grove Elementary School proved to be a lot different. His teacher, Mrs. Vickie Washington, had a classroom that felt welcoming. He also made fast connections with two kids in the class, who would become lifelong friends.
“All of those things I was hearing about the kids being unruly and disrespectful were flat out lies when I walked into that classroom," he said.
Jones said he learned a lot of very subtle lessons in Mrs. Washington’s class, including what he now considers to be an introduction to code-switching. She was very particular about the way students spoke in school, making the distinction between how the students spoke at recess or lunch, and how they were expected to speak in her classroom.
“I think it was connected to her experience as a black woman and being more aware of the cultural and systemic issues that impact students of color,” said Jones. “I think she was highly attuned to that and was actively working to prepare us for the world we were going to inherit.”
Mrs. Washington also helped him to see his community as well resourced despite the fact that many families struggled financially.
“People are resources, experiences are resources, wisdom and knowledge of one’s community is a resource,” said Jones. “It’s not the quantity of iPads or the salary of the teachers.”
Today, Jones works as a humanities teacher at Boston Day and Evening Academy. He credits Mrs. Washington for his desire to enter the field and work with students facing similar social and economic hardships that his community did growing up. But Jones said, also thanks to Mrs. Washington, he’s able to remember that it takes more resources than just money to give kids a good education.
“It was in that space [of Mrs. Washington's classroom] that I realized how incredibly powerful four walls and a chalkboard could be in terms of self-actualizing."
This segment aired on August 26, 2019.