My new 3QuarksDaily.com column (posted today) talks about Malik Smith, to whom the TEACHED project is dedicated:
Twelve years ago, during the last days of a Washington, D.C. summer, I met a tiny boy who left a big impression.
I was volunteering at a day-in-the-country event for low-income D.C. kids; Malik was one of many who had climbed on a bus that morning to spend a day chasing ducks, dipping his feet in a pool and eating lunch on a vast green lawn.
Malik had just turned five. He was ridiculously cute, with a round little head and huge dark-brown eyes. We hit it off, and at the end of the day the event director asked if I would be interested in becoming Malik’s “big buddy.” A short time later, it was official. We were buddies.
For the next few years, I spent two or three weekends a month taking Malik, and usually his two sisters, all over the city, to parks, movies, the occasional heavily-negotiated museum. I had been a teacher and tutor before becoming Malik’s “big buddy,” but this program was less about academics and more about getting kids out and about to have some fun while giving their families support.
I had never thought to visit Malik’s school or meet his teachers, and was angry with myself for not doing so when I learned that he was in a special education class at school. I only discovered this because he happened to show me his class photo: there were only five or six children in it (a regular class would have had 24 or more) and one of them had Down’s Syndrome.
I tried to hide my dismay from Malik. I knew the Washington, DC school district was notorious for over-identifying students—especially black boys—as “special ed” but it had never occurred to me that Malik might be one of them. Why was this perfectly intelligent and capable little boy in what appeared to be a special-education-only class?
Malik’s mother (who assumed the school was doing what was best for him) gave me permission to investigate and helped me set up a meeting with his teacher.