Safety Net

When it came to Jonathan’s education life was a balancing act on a high wire with no safety net beneath or if there was one, it had holes in it. Yesterday as I read a Haiku written by my son I was swept away in a torrent of memories and emotions.


I am a present tense

Even in a body

Not my own.1

This simple haiku speaks of a powerful truth according to scripture: our bodies are not our own. But I remember when the world cruelly told my Black child that his body was not his own and his life didn’t matter, and the whole truth of God’s word got distorted. I remember that day eighteen years ago when I’d picked him up from pre-school. As he held onto my hand tightly, he was sullen. I asked how his day was. Absent was the usual chatter about the book he read or recess fun playing tag with the tow-haired twin boys. When we got home instead of darting across the street to play with his besties, Jonathan waved to them then rushed inside. Later his eyes welled up with tears as he told my husband and me; “I don’t want to go back to that school anymore, they make me feel like I’m stupid and can’t do anything.”

The next day I pulled his teacher aside and repeated Jonathan’s words. Through pursed lips, she insisted that Jonathan had no friends. I countered that; he had good friends, our neighbors the Greco boys and what about the twin. She responded that the twins were just like him. She said Jonathan should be tested and get some meds to calm him down. I told her that he could focus. If given an option he’d rather sit and read for hours. She wouldn’t budge. She pointed to the floor in the front of the classroom a large X made of silver duct tape; Jonathan was not to move from that spot. Like an invisible leash, it was to keep him tethered. Jonathan described himself at five as a flame large enough to light a room. He was the lone black male in preschool, full of life and light, a fire that his teacher could not control but tried to diminish. Meanwhile, for the O’Malley twins also full of energy, there was no X on the floor. They received a hall pass. The teacher sent a clear message to our son that who he was and what he needed did not matter.

The next day we pulled him out of school and despite the financial burden I homeschooled for the rest of the year. After I returned to work and Jonathan to school, there were many times I wept and railed as another school tried to pigeonhole him. The nets had holes in them, so we had to make our own. My husband and I rejected the labels and each night we prayed over Jonathan as he slept. A spark was ignited in Jonathan as we nurtured his passion for reading and writing. We spent Saturdays at the library or bookstore and held creative writing contests between him and his sister Alexia.

When Jonathan was eleven years old, we took a leap of faith and moved to South Africa. Our fight for his education continued. But every once in a while there were allies; teachers, pastors or friends who proclaimed that Jonathan’s body was the Lord’s and that his life mattered. Two countries and eight schools later a white Afrikaner educator in South Africa disregarded the tests and the bias and told us what we always knew: Jonathan didn’t belong in a remedial school; he just needed help with math. He later graduated high school with merit, and soon we moved back to America.

I marvel that next spring Jonathan will graduate cum laude from college with a degree in writing and literature and a heart to change the false narrative about Black and Brown kids. As I look at how far we’ve come after all those years of looking for other people or institutions to be a safety net and all the times I’d darned my own, I now see that underneath us always were the everlasting arms.

  1. Haiku by Jonathan Rowe:
Sheila Wise Rowe
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10 thoughts on “Safety Net

  1. May God continue to bless and use you to fight for all the others in this broken world. I can only imagine your mama’s heart on both ends of your son’s story. Though, I think his real story is just beginning.

    • Debby thanks for the words of encouragement for me and for Jonathan.

  2. Sheila, thank you for including us on your journey. There are so many layers here, but my immediate takeaway is how thankful I am that you continued to rally and advocate for your son. It’s such a reminder of the long road of parenting, when I can get easily bogged down in the details.

    • Thank you Annie. Its a long road as well as a short one but a journey that’s worth taking. Praying for you, hang in there.

  3. Excellent post Sheila. I am so very grateful that you and Nick had the necessary insight and perseverance to be J’s advocates. He is amazing.

  4. Sheila, I grow so frustrated at the disparate treatment of kids of color. Thank you for doing all you can to support and protect your son. I remember visiting a (predominantly African American) elementary school in NC and being told the Kindergarten was not on that day’s tour because 1/3 of the students were on suspension. !!! What can a 5-year-old do to merit a suspension? How can nearly half of two classrooms of 5 year olds have merited suspension? And I also remember seeing a 6 year old African American kid doing standing back flips as if they were nothing as he waited his turn outside the Boys & Girls Club gym. I thought at the time: “If this was the suburbs, he’d be the top student in the cheer gym. Here, he’s just a kid waiting in line.”

    • Carlene thanks for the encouragement and sharing what you’ve seen. Its so easy for kids of color to get set up for failure and to fall through the cracks. We all have got to do more for them. Its true, it takes a whole village to raise a child.

  5. Sheila, this is a beautiful tribute to your son and a travelogue of your family’s perseverance. We have recently emerged (victorious) from our son’s battle to get into college with low test scores because of a learning difference. When we reduce learners to numerical data or to X’s on the floor, we’ve stopped teaching.

  6. Sheila, Thank you for sharing your story and providing a voice for education and empowerment. We have traveled a similar path and I have become an advocate for families who struggle to rid their children of one dimensional identities. You have brought further insight into how much harder it is for children of color.

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