Medcalf: Give Minneapolis teachers of color a chance to be there for students who need them most

I was in fifth grade typing on my Apple MacIntosh computer when a teacher impacted my life.

The assignment that day was simple: write a "Roses are Red, Violets are Blue" poem. I don't remember what I wrote or what inspired me that day. My ambitions back then mostly involved lunch, recess and gym class — not academics. But I do remember Mrs. Coleman's reaction.

"Wow, Myron!" she said, as I perked up in my little plastic chair in the computer room. "This is really good!"

She was a Black woman and a teacher at a predominantly white school, one of the few adults in the building who looked like me. Her presence alone was supportive.

Her words that afternoon, however, strengthened my internal resolve to consider a future as a writer.

While the conversation around the Minneapolis school district's recently adopted contract provision that aims to retain more teachers of color — who are largely the youngest, least tenured and most vulnerable — became a lightning rod for political forces throughout the country in June, I thought about the kids. The kids who look like me. The kids who will benefit most from seeing teachers like Mrs. Coleman.

"It can be a national model, and schools in other states are looking to emulate what we did," Edward Barlow, a band teacher at Anwatin Middle School and a member of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers executive board, told the Star Tribune in June. "Even though it doesn't do everything that we wanted it to do, it's still a huge move forward for the retention of teachers of color."

The battle in a district where 60% of the enrollment consists of students of color and just 16% of the tenured teachers are teachers of color is familiar in a place with a history of acting against the interests of BIPOC students.

In the Booker v. Special School District No. 1 case in 1972, a federal judge ruled that the Minneapolis school district had violated the Fourteenth Amendment — the same Fourteenth Amendment at the center of legal actions against the new policy to protect teachers of color — and had "increased and fostered racial segregation," per the Minnesota Journal of Law and Inequality.

Some of the white Minnesotans advocating against the new language in the teachers' contract suggest they're only concerned about protecting the educators with seniority, although the district is begging for more applicants to fill vacant positions, not eliminating them. They're also the beneficiaries of the policies that have historically granted white kids the best education and white professionals the most protection in Minneapolis and beyond.

Plus, any attempt to protect teachers of color will not erase decades of systemic boundaries that have been implemented to prevent them from getting those jobs in the first place.

It's a scenario that plays out for BIPOC folks throughout the country, where professional success is often viewed as a condition of our race and not our work ethic, skills, intellect, collective experience and qualifications. It's difficult to get into the door, and once you're in there, you know it won't take much to lose everything you've gained.

But the toxic dialogue around the Minneapolis teachers' contract also ignores the impact of teachers of color on the entire school district — and especially BIPOC kids.

For me, it was Mrs. Coleman, who pushed me to explore writing in fifth grade. I believed her. It was Mr. Means, an assistant principal at my high school and the first Black man I knew who had a slice of power in a predominantly white space. I didn't know you could stand that tall around influential white people until I met him. It was my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Bonds, who always saw me. It was my college professor, Joann Quinones, who taught a summer class about the history of feminism. About 95% of the students in that class were women. She told me to listen.

But the most influential teacher in my life raised me.

My mother, Barbara Medcalf, walked onto the University of Wisconsin campus in the late 1960s when she was just 16 years old, after she became a bookworm and skipped two grades following a bout with polio. She was a teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools for more than 40 years. I wrote a book about sharks when I was in the second grade and she carried it in her purse as if I'd won a Pulitzer. She encouraged me and others.

One day, we were all walking down the street near my grandmother's house when a young Black man began to yell in our direction. I was startled when he started to run toward us. And then I heard him.

"Mrs. Medcalf! Mrs. Medcalf! Mrs. Medcalf!" he screamed as he embraced my mother, who'd been his elementary school teacher. He had tears in his eyes. I don't remember what they said to one another, only how she'd made him feel.

I hope BIPOC kids in Minneapolis get those same experiences so they too can bump into a former teacher who looks like them and feel appreciative. The only way to ensure that possibility in one of our nation's most challenging professions, however, is to give those teachers of color — often the most likely to lose their spots when cuts are made — a chance to be there for those who need them most.

Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print Sundays twice a month and online.