My Call to “Good Trouble”: Advocating for change as a Black male educator

By Catrell Medlock

With the recent passing of the Honorable John Lewis, many Americans are asking themselves a lot of personal and thought-provoking questions. I am personally answering the call to be an advocate for equality while demanding change as a bold, beautiful, Black man. I will do as John Lewis requested of my generation, “and find a way to get in the way…find a way to get in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.”

I feel compelled to boldly tell the world why Black Lives Matter and elaborate on the important role education and teachers play in closing the gap for minority students of color.  It’s no secret Black and Brown students deserve the same social justices and educational opportunities so often afforded to their white counterparts that don’t look like them. I know this to be true because I am a Black man and a veteran educator that has witnessed and been victimized by the sting of blatant racism, while being mistreated, misjudged, and too often misunderstood because of my skin complexion and my bold blackness. This mistreatment and miscarriage of justice is what led to me answering my first call to teach and to change the world through my ‘many colors’, not because of my one color, black.

Langston Hughes said it best, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” It’s been a daily stride and strive to stay alive. A Black man’s walk is a crusade instead of what should be a pleasurable cruise and comparable to that of others who do not resemble Black and Brown people.

In December 2007, while attending Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee, Florida, I was caught “walking while Black” into Governor’s Square Mall. It was during the Christmas season and I was approached by a sheriff, who was white, and questioned me about shopping bags in my hand which happened to be shoes I had rightfully purchased. To be honest, I didn’t know what to say, think or feel because I had never been in this predicament. I was a young, Black, hard-working college student and a recently commissioned officer in the U.S. Army. My obvious confused stare at the sheriff turned into anger, hurt, and embarrassment. I offered to show receipts to prove my innocence and was later let go with no apology.

After this occurrence, I became really depressed and dropped out of college. I asked myself many questions including, “Did this happen because I’m Black?” This is a normal reaction anyone in my situation would have, especially a Black person.

If it weren’t for FSU’s CARE (Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement) program, I would have never gone back to college or graduated. The program’s mission was to “provide equity and access to traditionally underrepresented students disadvantaged by virtue of educational and socioeconomic reasons.”  A woman on the committee contacted me to schedule a meeting and to inquire about the status of me returning to college. I explained to her what happened to me at the mall. She truly empathized with me and gave me much needed encouragement and some words of wisdom. After I left her office, I made up my mind I wanted to be a teacher and that no one would ever strip me of my freedom again, and that I would do my best to get in the way and to get into good trouble.

My first teaching position was in Louisiana at my high school alma mater. For four years, I taught ninth and tenth grade English to predominantly Black and Brown students. This is where I experienced my first round of systemic racism in public education. My first year of teaching, the principal asked me to develop a play for the freshman class. I did so by writing the play, “From Victims to Victory,” and by working with the minority students after school. The only problem I incurred was having to collaborate with the Lead English Teacher, Ms. X (my direct supervisor and my past English teacher when I was enrolled as a student) to schedule a time for the play to be presented in the school auditorium. This instructor was a very competent teacher but I felt she never displayed any concern or affection toward students of color, not even when I was in her class. Her educational philosophy was that all students are created equal and therefore have the same opportunities as any other student in the school. If that were true, then my parents would have been allowed to attend this school in the sixties, but they could not attend due to Jim Crow and the “separate but equal” laws. But what’s revealing is, I not only graduated from this school with honors, I came back to teach and was the first Black male English teacher the school ever had since its first opening.

Furthermore, I believe she intentionally tried to derail the success of the play by scheduling it the first day students returned from Easter break. I believe she picked this less than desirable date thinking the students would forget their lines and not have their costumes ready when they returned. I was also concerned that the scheduled date would impact the students but every student showed up and performed well. This incident proved to me and the entire school that our students are much more than their face and race and we should be providing encouragement instead of judgement. Some people in this world may perceive Black and Brown students in a negative light, but our students should know that they can do anything they set their hearts and minds too.

This is why I embraced teaching as a calling, not a career.

My next teaching crusade led me to Atlanta, Georgia where I taught GED classes in the Adult Education department at a technical college for about six years. During this time I helped many students earn their GED credential but there are three stories of resilient Black and Brown students I will never forget. Janice was a 19 year-old Black woman and a mother of three with a 10th grade education. Janice went on to earn her GED within a year and in December 2020 she will graduate from college with an associate degree in Medical Assisting. Alicia, a Latinx woman, was a native Spanish speaker who enrolled in English language classes while attending my GED classes. She didn’t believe she could pass the GED test subjects in English but then earned advanced scores in multiple test subjects and graduated from college with an associate degree in Business Administration. I also remember Dave, a Black man raising three sons as a single father. He was working a full-time job as a cook and was an ex-offender. Dave was ordered by a judge to attend GED classes and after four months of hard work he earned his GED. Since that time he was promoted to a Sous Chef and his son graduated from high school and is currently attending college. I am inspired by their determination to succeed despite the odds and they are a testament to the work that still needs to be done to create and support opportunities that allow everyone to succeed.

My students, my life experiences and the need for change keep me committed to my calling as an educator. I have spent my life challenging the assumptions of people that question my abilities and my worth, and that of others who look like me. I will continue this work and stirring up “good trouble, necessary trouble” in my journey as a competent, bold and proud Black man.

Catrell Medlock is an adult education instructor based in Atlanta, Georgia. He can be reached at [email protected]