The “Bad Kid”

I went to the same public school system for first through eighth grade. My town was not that large, so the size of my grade never exceeded 70 people. Aside from a few students who moved either to our town or out of it, the kids who were in my class stayed relatively the same each year. The reason I’m writing about this is that it recently occurred to me over these eight years, there was only ever one black male student in my grade. That is, based on my perception there was only one black male student in my grade. I obviously cannot be totally sure of how my classmates identified themselves. For the purposes of this post, I will call this particular student, John.

John did not do very well in school, and he tended to get in trouble rather frequently. By the end of eighth grade, John had been suspended multiple times, and was accused of assaulting two girls in our class. Needless to say, he had a reputation for being a “bad kid”. I have no idea of what happened to John after middle school or where he is now. He moved immediately after graduation, and I never heard anything about him since.

In our seminar, we talk about the dangers of illusory correlations (wrongfully believing a relationship between two things exists). When we form illusory correlations, we tend to associate unique things with one another. In my grade, John was unique in that he was the only black male, and the severity of his actions also stood out. Unfortunately, following the “logic” of illusory correlations, these two factors combined likely mean that I on some level learned to associate young black boys with these types of behaviors. There were other male students who were white that acted similarly to John, but there were also a large number of white male students who I saw every day that did not. Being white was not unique in the same way that being black was, which means that I was less likely to attribute these boy’s behavior to their race than I would be for John.

I’m curious as to what other people think about my analysis of this experience. How strong of a hold do these childhood experiences have over our current beliefs and biases? Is the very fact that I remember this student in this way racist?

2 thoughts on “The “Bad Kid””

  1. From the Powell article we read, “My son has been suspended five times. He’s 3,” instances like your experience I’m sure are more common than we believe. It makes me wonder how the system might have perpetuated John’s trouble-making behavior. As you said, there were kids that would do the same sorts of things as John, but ultimately you remember John being reprimanded for his actions. Could it also have been that you witnessed John being getting in trouble more because he was getting in punished more than the white kids, which might have occurred based on the color of his skin?

  2. I had a similar experience in elementary and middle school Brendan where I probably didn’t know more than ten black people that I had even acquaintance based relationships with. When I think about your story, I think too about the actions that got this student in trouble so often and if he was acting out because he felt so other-ed in your school. After reading the article about the impact of dorm lives in predominantly white colleges for students of color, I wonder what extreme impacts that predominantly white elementary and middle schools has on these key developmental years for students. Do students internalize these feelings of being unwelcome and being different? Do they act out as a way to compensate for those feelings and express them? I don’t know but it is definitely something to consider.

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