Two minutes was all I had.
Ding, dong, ding, dong. School chairs scratched the square linoleum floor tiles. Thirty pre-teens in red, white, and black plaid uniforms scuttled to the doorway. There I was, waiting for the teacher to finish their final thought before even thinking about closing my thick black Five Star five-subject binder. Crumbs from an unfinished bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos sprinkled the bottom of my clear plastic backpack as I tried to stuff it with yet another object before I zipped it up to run to my next class.
There were only two minutes until the next class started.
Trying to exit the classroom to enter the crowded hallway was more difficult than entering a game of double-dutch, but somehow, I made it. The teachers were supposed to be outside their classroom doors to monitor the hallway, but toward the end of the day, teachers stayed in their rooms (they didn’t think we noticed, but it was like clockwork). This was my window of opportunity to cut down the middle hallway, the shortcut that no students were allowed to take.
I only had two minutes to get to my next class.
I took the forbidden shortcut. As I made it to the other side, I saw the man that made me reconsider the wrong decision I had just made. My heart dropped, but if I had stopped moving, I would’ve brought unnecessary attention to myself, so I kept walking. As I tried to shuffle by the man, he looked me in the eye with a smirk and said, “Hello, Mr. Hill.” I replied, “Hello, Mr. Bland,” and disappeared into my classroom.
He saw me. And I saw him.
Mr. Bland was the leader of Detroit Edison Public School Academy (DEPSA), a K-8 public charter school in Detroit, MI, that I attended from 1st through 8th grades. He was a confident teacher, an empathetic administrator, an empowering orator, and someone I wholeheartedly trusted. But above all else, he was my exemplar of a Black male educator.
Mr. Bland saw me, and I saw him.
But what does it mean to be seen?
Mr. Bland saw my weaknesses, understood my goals, and provided me with opportunities to improve. I was a pretty intelligent kid whom my peers would turn to for help on a problem. I typically was one of the people who had his hand raised when others in the class were too shy to do so. My weakness, however, was standardized testing. I could easily engage with the content in the classroom, but when it came to the annual statewide assessment, I performed sub-optimally. In eighth grade, Mr. Bland knew I wanted to attend Cranbrook Schools or one of Detroit’s magnet high schools, Cass Tech, but to gain admission to either of those schools, I had to take a standardized test. Mr. Bland signed me up for Saturday test-prep sessions. Thanks to the test preparation, I attended Cass Tech and joined Cranbrook’s Horizons-Upward Bound program the following year.
Mr. Bland saw my strengths and put me in positions where I could shine. Even now, I still have no idea why Mr. Bland hired me as an after-school second-grade tutor while I was a freshman in high school. This was my first real job. I started as a teacher’s assistant but led the classroom by myself a few weeks later. I still remember one day, Mr. Bland came into my classroom, sat in the back, and watched me teach. In my mind, though no words were spoken, he was proud of me.
I saw him, too.
Not only did I see a Black male educator, I saw a Black male educator who had vision, passion, heart, compassion, and integrity. DEPSA, when I first attended, was in a less-than-ideal building. By the time I was in 7th grade, Mr. Bland (and others) built a brand-new state-of-the-art facility. He didn’t stop there; the school eventually grew to include a high school. He now oversees several schools across the City of Detroit. He’s charting new territories, increasing the population of students he’s working with, and thinking of ways the school’s mission can be expanded. I’m inspired by what he has been able to create and excited by what is yet to come. Mr. Bland showed me that being a Black male educator was not only an option, but it could also be the goal.
As I encourage my students to honor and harness the power of their stories, I cannot forget the stories and experiences that influence how I lead and move through life. We all deserve to be in environments where we are seen. As a little Black boy in Detroit, I had the privilege to see and be seen by a Black male educator. And because I was seen and saw, I know there are no limits to what I can do as a Black male educator. I also know that whenever I enter my school, I not only need to look out for our Black students, but I must also always be aware that they, too, are looking at me.