I stopped shaking with apprehension upon being called down to the principal’s office sometime in the middle of last year when I learned to predict when the higher-ups would ask to speak with me.
Somewhere after the fourth or fifth time I was yanked out of class, forced to sit in the familiarly bland conference room; some point after the routine lecture about my stubborn refusal to silently accept my school’s appetite for racial and ethical apathy- sometime around then, I became acutely aware that it was all for show.
I recognized that the disruption of my education was a part of a performance that my administration put on in an attempt to placate the incensed parents and students of Princeton High School, who couldn’t believe that someone was publicly chastising their children for their equally as public disregard for general decency; disregard that they so desperately attempted to package as ignorance, and boys-just-being-boys shenanigans. I saw, rather quickly, that I was the only tool my school had to use in its battle against the impact of my writing. I knew what being called down to the principal’s office meant; that it was an act and that it did not deserve my fear.
Friday, as I sat in my chair, in that horribly boring room, which no longer offered any entertainment (I had already counted all the tiles on the ceiling and bricks on the walls); as I wondered how many more times I would be forced to miss class to entertain my administration; as I attempted to swallow the annoyance I had at being used as a tool by adults who were consistently befuddled by issues that seemed rather straight forward to me, I decided for the first time that this would be my last time in this office. And then they suspended me.
Evidently I had used “explicitly racial language,” in my senior collage. I had disrupted a community environment which was focused on learning and that disciplinary action had to be taken. It was explained to me that I was not to be in school on Monday. I was asked if I had any questions. The show went on.
I sat silently for several moments as I rolled my sentencing around my brain. I considered the fact that they just suspended a black kid for allegedly using the N word. I recalled my collage, the photo which hosts 16 of my friends and 5 out-of-focus hanging men, 1 full G, half of an R, and an I which may or may not be an H. I wondered where they explicitly saw the word “nigger,” when I understood that they didn’t; that there is no nigger in the yearbook; that the only nigger in that photo is me; that she had said too much, disrupted the show and that she had to be silenced.
Upon reaching the realization that I had been suspended on fabricated grounds I quite literally laughed out loud. I wondered what they believed was going to happen next. I had made myself notorious by refusing to go quietly- they had to be aware that I wouldn’t swallow an unjust suspension with a hiccup and a smile.
The only explanation I could conjure up was that the benefits of finally handing it to me would wildly outweigh adherence to an ethically sound mode of operation. Suspending me and sending whatever message came alongside that was more important than keeping a student in school, more important than the repercussions which could potentially follow a suspension and wildly beyond granting me the same extreme latitude which every other student who treads the line of racial sensitivity receives. My school decided that placating those who have spent the last year and a half screaming for my head received precedent over me, causing me to wonder- what the hell are my parents paying taxes for?
Princeton High is sending the public a message: Jamaica Ponder can and will be stopped. Alongside that they are also reinforcing messages they’ve been sending for years: Black students will get suspended at 9x the rate of white students. We will bend to the pressure of parents and teenagers, regardless of what students get hurt in the process. We have no interest in discussing white fragility, privilege or racial illiteracy- in fact, we’d rather not. We do not care about minority students, which is why a white kid can use the N-word on the bus but, trust and believe that if our black students even appear to have used it- intentionally or not- they will be punished.
I was suspended over a yearbook.
A yearbook in which the Japanese and Chinese teachers’ names are switched, because what’s the difference anyway? A yearbook hosting deliberately photoshopped Nazis, and quotes from Kim Jong Il- two renowned human rights violators. A yearbook which was equated to a safe, community platform, yet manages to disprove that classification on every other page.
I was told that intent was irrelevant. It didn’t matter that it was an oversight. No, the yearbook staff is not in anyway responsible. Yes, you are disrupting a safe, community platform by incorporating letters that are also in the N-word- making it basically the n-word. No, we don’t care if you’re black- I mean we do, but not in this case.
It’s important to recognize that any attempt to silence the anger of the disenfranchised is futile, because it is an effort to control people who have nothing to lose. This isn’t about me- it never has been. It’s about the kids who will remain here after I have left. It’s about the students who you ignore as you spend energy trying to silence and control me. Do not place me at the epicenter of an issue which includes over 5% of our school’s population. Do not hide your systemic biases behind me, I am not here to protect you.
Your secret is out, PHS. Everyone knows that Princeton Public Schools has constantly and consistently failed people of color and there is energy wasted in trying to mask the inconvenient truth in arbitrary suspensions. Just because you maim the messenger doesn’t mean the truth dies with them. I won’t be in school on Monday but you’ll still have an embarrassing education gap.
I won’t be in Princeton next year but people will still be angry. They will still feel ignored, failed and stuck playing a role in this toxic show of the disillusioned. Getting rid of me will not fix your problems, as I hope you’re well aware by now.
I understood, sometime in the middle of last year, that I was part of a show- a show of power, of commitment, of pacifying control. That same understanding made it quite clear to me that the show continues to go on, and that I continue to be drafted as the main event. This show- this performance of sorts- has, quite frankly, wasted enormous amounts of my time. But it has also given me a platform to make something extremely clear: you can keep me out of school, rob me of class time and take away my access to an education but you can’t keep me quiet, nor rob me of my voice, nor take away the unfaltering determination I have to dismantle the system which fights vigorously to protect itself. Don’t you realize? Principal’s offices don’t scare me anymore.
I’ll see you on Tuesday PHS.