Dead Poet’s Society, The Oakland Edition, Young Black Gifted and Fired

Mr. Bey’s students still rave about him.  I remember the kids streaming in after school, just wanting to talk to him.  He was one of those authentic teachers, who made school relevant, and also saw and cultivated the genius that all youth have, but mostly he cared.  He loved his kids, and they loved him back.  Sometimes school ain’t about love though, and sometimes the most effective teachers get no love.  They get a pink slip.

Mr. Bey beamed as he described his re-enacting a scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where he asked students to stand on their desks to see the change in perspective on the world.  And how they did. You know Dead Poet’s Society, the 80’s classic which featured an unorthodox teacher inspiring students to become their best selves and the typical ending for a prophet in their own land.  They got fired.

Mr. Bey was our version of that.  You can read stories from his students, odes to him.  And see him first hand here.  But Mr. Bey like many who try to actually liberate our kids was fired, or “non re-elected” whatever they call it.  You cant teach in any OUSD school for 2 years—that is unless you resign first.  Trash.

Institutional Racism and Young Black Teachers

Mr. Bey wrote a couple of pieces for me early on.  As a young Black teacher he was having some, ahem, “interesting” experiences.  They were true, but a racist system doesn’t like to see its face in the mirror, it wants you to wear the mask, and might break the mirror rather than face the truth.  I, like most other Black folks who speak up, have had those experiences.  And honestly, I kind of hesitated to publish his pieces because I know the backlash.

First there was the substitute teacher who didn’t believe that Mr. Bey was on the faculty, despite repeated assurances,

Last week, I walked into a classroom to pick up two students of mine for our “Young Men’s Empowerment Group”, there happened to be a substitute teacher. Upon my entering the class, she aggressively told me to get out. I calmly smiled, understanding her confusion, and confidently informed her that I am a teacher and am picking up two of my students for our group. Impatiently, she cut me off and again told me, “I don’t believe you, get out”. I took a breathe, and with the intent to mitigate the situation, kindly, placed my hand on her shoulder and reassured her, that I am a teacher. Without hesitation, she demanded that I get my hand off her, repeatedly telling me to get out, she then condescendly stated that she’s “heard that before”. With the understanding that I am in fact a Young Black Male Teacher and this is Oakland and she’s an Elderly White Substitute Teacher, Woman and this IS Oakland, I took a step back, said “Yes ma’am” and took out my school staff I.D. and showed it to her. She arrogantly said “k, I believe you”… No apology, no intent to reconcile the affliction, not even a change in demeanor. After school that day, I attempted to approach her to see if perhaps I had caught her at a bad time or if there was anything she needed to say. However, upon seeing me she changed directions. Attempting to get her attention, I said “Hi, excuse me” she continued in the opposite direction and ignored me.

and then I believe it was an administrator who approached him, again assuming he was not faculty, and accused him of “smelling like weed.”

I also lead a Young Men’s Empowerment Group for Black and Latino students. A few weeks ago, as I was gathering my students to meet for our group, the vice principal, a white woman, stops us and says someone smells like weed. As I look at my students to observe their facial responses, I notice the vice principal come right up to my chest area and smell me.  I was completely taken aback, I did not know how to respond. Of course, as I stated previously, I do not smoke so I wasn’t afraid. Instead, I felt insulted. On many different levels. I can’t speak for my students per se, however, with all due respect I felt like I was being pulled over by the police and violated by a drug sniffing K9 Unit. There must be a more professional way to approach a situation such as this. Furthermore, my level of professionalism was being questioned by my “superior” in front of my students. It is my job to offer them support and “empowerment” and here I am being degraded and disempowered.

Beyond how jacked up these stories are—in each instance he is leading a young men of color empowerment group and he is being disrespected by his peers exactly because he is a young man of color.  You can’t make this stuff up.  And it would be funny were it not ultimately demoralizing, both to Black teachers but also think of the students witnessing these encounters.

The message they get is loud and clear.

And Mr. Bey got the message eventually too.  Despite being the best teacher many students have ever had.  He was too inspirational, and the students did show the mirror to the system, they wrote about what they wanted from school and what they needed—and why the slept in or skipped classes.

These are truths that the system does not want to hear, and it would rather remove the amplifier than change its ways.

And like Whitman’s poem,

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

Mr. Bey had and will continue to have an impact, but he won’t make it back to port with the crew he once led.  Everyone but the system is worse off from this.





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