I made a huge mistake yesterday and it all started with our peewee basketball tournament.
I’ve been coaching pee wee for what feels like one billion years (okay, just 4 months) and have slowly picked up a few other roles along the way: designated inhaler holder, scorekeeper, and shuttle service to and from practices and games. I don’t mind any of these jobs. In fact, they’ve all had their perks. I’ve learned so much about asthma and basketball through the first three but shuttling the nuggets around has been the most informative.
Before basketball, I never had a reason to go on the other side of the tracks. Since our town is literally divided in half between the white and black sides of the railroad tracks, I live on the white side within walking distance of my school. Now, because of basketball, I’ve found myself over on the other side of town 3 or 4 times a week. My loud truck has become a regular sight in the black community as I find my way out of the maze of double wide trailers, leaning shacks, and government housing. Seeing my students’ parents wave at or text me to tell me they saw me drive by always makes me a tiny bit proud…. beyond the relationships I’ve built with my players, it’s these relationships with the parents that I’m most grateful for.
Yesterday, we had our last tournament game in Bay, about 30 minutes away from here. I was supposed to pick up T, one of my little 5th grade boys, at 5:20 to meet the bus at 5:30. Everything was on track until I decided to buy 80 Chicken McNuggets from McDonalds for my nuggets to eat on the bus ride to the game. Apparently cooking 80 McNuggets takes about 15 minutes, and while I don’t regret spending 24 dollars on a nug run, it made me late to pick up T and thus, late to the bus. It happens.
I hate being late so when T jumped into my car with two other little boys, one a fourth grader, C, I recognized and one, a second grader I didn’t, I didn’t take the time to ask the important questions: Do your parents know where you’re going? What time do they need you to be back? Do they have my phone number?
I just drove. The only responsible thing I did was make sure the boys had their seat belts fastened. My mind was on catching the bus and organizing the distribution of freshly deep fried Chicken McNuggets to twenty impatient 4th, 5th, and sixth grade girls.
We made it to the bus, nugs enjoyed nugs, and we went to the game. 3 hours and one devastating loss to a cross county rival later, we were back on the bus. Our season was finally over.
As I sat down on the bus, basking in the glory a new teacher feels when a commitment wraps up, I pulled my phone out to tweet something awesome about how proud I was of the girls for their season and Instagram some shot of 80 McNuggets (#nugsfornugs) when I saw I had 6 or 7 missed calls from numbers I didn’t recognize. This only means one thing: parents. I avoid parent phone calls in the evenings for several reasons but answered when one of the mysterious numbers insistently called again for the eighth time. Yes, definitely a parent.
Eventually I discovered through several phone calls that neither of the two extra boys I drove to the bus had permission to go. In fact, neither of their parents even knew where they were. My number had been found through a friend of a friend and they had been trying to reach me for hours. By 9 PM, both boys were returned home to angry mommas waiting in the high school gym parking lot with threats of a whooping. I was so ashamed.
Not only did I fail to act as a responsible adult, I knew, after thinking for a few moments, that I didn’t question the boys getting into my car because I sometimes hold a negative stereotype of parents from the other side of the tracks as being neglectful or too absent to worry about their kids… it kills me that I don’t think I would have acted that way on the white side of my town. I see so many broken homes, hear of so much domestic abuse, and smell so much drugs, smoke, and alcohol on my kids that I made a split second judgment because it was convenient to. I made a sweeping generalization because I could, as a white middle class woman, take two boys 30 minutes away from their homes for 4 hours and never once be thought of as a criminal, kidnapper, or child molester. So when I say it all started with basketball, it actually started with my biases, racism, power and privilege. After all of the strides I made this season in truly seeking to understand my students and their parents, all of the conversations and shared victories, I dropped the ball.