Grounding is the punishment parents usually go to when their kids bring home bad grades, and I was no exception. But when my eighth-grade daughter brought home a year of solid Ds in history — garnished with a note from the teacher about her attitude — I knew that grounding wasn’t about to solve anything. It was time to dig deeper.
It was the summer of 2010, and the internet was abuzz with news about the book “Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till.” The book recounts the entire story, from the alleged whistling that Till directed at a white woman to his beating death. It seemed like the perfect topic, especially after I found out that my kid had no clue who Till was.
The punishment began after school let out. My husband and I took her to the library to gather research materials. She had to compile enough data to be able to tell us about Till’s murder and why it was so important for the civil rights movement. In addition, because some of her worst grades were on the papers her teacher assigned, I assigned a five-page essay on the entire project, including an analysis of why I would assign such an essay 55 years later.
The essay was due at the end of the month. If she did well, she got her summer back. If she didn’t, she would be reading books all summer because the TV, cell phone, computer and iPod were going on lockdown. That’s called a “tech blackout” in my house.
I would love to say that she accepted the terms and went to work. Of course, a teenager known for “shooting her mouth off” at her teacher when confronted about missing homework wasn’t going to take a summer research project lightly. However, shooting off her mouth to me, her Black mother, was not a road she wanted to go down at that moment. Instead, she got her frustrations out by loudly closing doors and cabinets (after I got onto her about slamming them), stomping through the house and sighing so loudly every time she got near us that we thought she might be vomiting. We ignored it all, reminding her that the time really would pass quickly, and the tech blackout stood until she completed the project and did it well.
She ultimately started the project after three days, probably out of boredom more than anything else. She finally collected the books from the table in the living where she dropped them after the library visit and went to her room. The books showed up again at dinner; she read through the meal. In fact, she didn’t go anywhere without the books for a week. Every few hours, she would come find me with some shocking new information she had learned about the case.
Every few hours, she would come find me with some shocking new information she had learned about the case.
“Mommy! The grown white men beat up a boy because he whistled at a woman. And nobody went to jail! Nobody went to jail! Is this for real?” she asked me.
“It sure is real,” I responded before launching into a discussion of Jim Crow laws and systematic racism. We talked for a while and then she went back to her studies.
A few hours later, I’d hear, “MOMMY!”
She came to tell me that she found a report saying that there may have been a reason for Till’s whistle — if it had occurred. “Mommy, he had speech thingy! He whistled because he had to, Mommy!” My husband and I ended up talking to her and all of the kids about what racism was back then and how the unfair treatment of Black people was seen as just by the white people in power at the time. This would be the first of several family discussions we would have, all spurred by my daughter’s hunger for Black history knowledge.
By the third week of her research, my kid was giving lectures on Black history, Emmett Till and civil rights to everyone, including her 7-year-old brother. We went to get more books and started watching movies about the era. By the end of the month, my whole family had been enriched by the history of civil rights and Till’s story. It was obvious that she had learned more than her share of the history, and she was reading about other key figures and events. I waived the essay.
My whole family had been enriched by the history of civil rights and Till’s story.
Once my daughter got her electronics back and was free to hang out with her friends again, there wasn’t a lot of talk about Black history. I actually thought my daughter had forgotten about it, but I was wrong. She took a history class in her first semester at high school and passed with flying colors.
Despite her academic success, she was upset that the class didn’t get to the civil rights era. I consoled her with the name of another pivotal figure in Black history: Crispus Attucks. She was happy to hit the books again — no grounding required.