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My Son Is the Only Brown Toddler in His Classroom

A Latino father reflects on having tough conversations with his son's teachers

Nick Marmolejo

Published on: June 02, 2021

cute latino toddler wearing a backpack

Editor’s note: This essay was first published on Medium.

Drop-off and pickup times Monday through Friday are like scenes from “The Twilight Zone.” A few blocks away from day care, I wind down the volume on the stereo of our aging Kia. If you had pulled up next to me just a few minutes prior, you would’ve caught a glimpse of me matching the lyrical flow of several ’90s rappers. I’m likely to park near a matching his/her Audi or Tesla on any given day. I remind myself: Your family deserves to experience the same privileges they do.

Who are “they”?

They are marketing agents, consultants, lawyers and associate professors. They are predominantly white, in their mid-30s–40s, and likely able to walk a short distance to and from home and the day care, if they please. They are not like us in most aspects.

Who are we?

I am a Seattle transplant, with just under three years in the Emerald City. More immediately, I am a Latino teacher and marathon runner. My extended family is brown to the core. Picture this (pre-COVID-19 days): When someone in the family has a birthday, it warrants a full-blown backyard party with Tejano and country music blaring (being brown doesn’t restrict us from loving George Strait). All 13 nieces and nephews, three older sisters, stepfather and mother visit each other most days. You pretty much have to force people to go home.

Our family moved here from a college town in Texas to enjoy the beauty and adventure of the area. Making the relocation here was years in the decision-making. But what finally nudged us was the surprising and exciting news that we were expecting a child! Within a few weeks, I notified my employer that we were making the leap I had always spoken of. This first-generation college graduate from the barrio has always had plans.

The disconnect

Every time I receive a picture or video from my son’s day care, I take a keen interest in his surroundings. Who is playing near him? What activity are they doing? Does he look happy? My biggest concern is that he is being treated differently by his teachers and the other toddlers.

To be clear, I know his day care means well. In fact, the teachers are a diverse group (age, sex, ethnicity, etc.). One may think, “If the teachers more closely reflect your son’s background, then why are you worried he will be treated differently?” The answer is simple: Every person is capable of practicing racist tendencies. In fact, POC (people of color) are known to show hidden bias against other POC to the point that we don’t really realize we’re guilty of it.

From my experience as a Latino man and teacher, I have been known to withhold my authentic self. I have also seen black and brown teachers cater more to white and affluent students’ needs and wants. This happens for two reasons: 1) Teachers of color begin to assimilate and see themselves as a part of the dominant culture; or 2) Teachers feel the real or perceived pressure to provide more resources and opportunities for white/affluent students. Very rarely are teachers knowingly engaging in this behavior. That’s the tough part. It’s difficult to pinpoint the root and even more difficult to start the conversation about it with a school administrator or teacher.

What’s in my control

I learned an invaluable lesson from my mother during my childhood. “For your family, be willing to go to any lengths to secure what you all deserve in life.” She didn’t speak these words; she embodied them my entire life.

So, while I am willing and capable of having tough conversations with my son’s teachers, it’s more important that we demonstrate to him:

  1. He is dearly loved.
  2. He belongs.
  3. He is one of a kind (and if you meet him, you’d agree).

We can barely afford to send him to this day care, which is why he stayed at home with his mother for the first two years of his life. I get the impression that most parents and teachers at his day care recognize this. Within the past few months, we were forced to make tough budgetary concessions just to get by.

But his mother and I choose to put monetary fears aside. We follow the same “dame un beso” (“give me a kiss”) routine at drop-off and pickup. We always remind him to say goodbye to his friends. And we match his jumping enthusiasm the moment our eyes lock during pickup.

My son is the only brown kid in his classroom, and that’s something we don’t take for granted!

Do we plan to put him through private school? No, we do not. But that’s a story for another day.

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