By Matthew Young, RealWV
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – “James Baldwin says, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’”
That’s how educator T.C. Clemons began her testimony before the Joint Standing Committee on Education during Sunday’s Interim Legislative Session. Clemons, a 43-year veteran of elementary and special education in Cabell County, recently paused her retirement to take on the role of cultural climate consultant for the Wayne County School System.
“If you know anything about the Wayne County School System, there are very few people that look like me,” Clemons, a black woman, told committee members. “The principals asked me to come in because students were freely using the ‘N’ word. Since I happen to have been the black teacher for 43 years with all the white kids, it didn’t even phase me.”
Prior to her arrival, Clemons explained, the action taken by Wayne County school officials for the use of racial slurs by students was suspension. According to Clemons, however, both her and a former Cabell County colleague now working in Wayne shared the belief that education was a more sustainable solution than punitive measures.
Clemons now works in two Wayne County schools; one serving grades pre-K through eight, and the other grades six through eight. After spending most of her career with elementary-aged students, Clemons said it took her some time to find affection for the middle schoolers.
“I saw with our middle school kids that they were in desperate need of love,” Clemons said. “It didn’t matter to me that they didn’t look anything like me. I knew that they needed some love.”
During the 2022/2023 school year, Clemons conducted one-hour sessions with the students, three days a week.
“It’s two days of positive words,” Clemons explained. “I’m telling them who they are, ‘you’re loving, you’re kind, you’re smart.’ That’s what I’ve spoken to those kids, and they looked at me like I was crazy. I did that for two days to build a rapport with the students – to develop a trust with the students.”
Between the two schools, Clemons serves a total of 800 students. The minority populations of each school are 5% and 2% respectively. To Clemon’s delight, many of the faculty and staff, which in Wayne County is entirely white, have and still do participate in her sessions with the students.
“My purpose was to speak honestly, build trust, and develop a relationship,” Clemons noted. “That’s what I wanted to do more than anything. And to instill a sense of hope and acceptance to students of color, because they were so few in these schools, and to present students with positive words to identify themselves. If they can’t identify themselves with a positive word, when they look at me, because of the color of my skin, they’re not going to have anything good to say about me.”
“I wanted to enlighten their thinking of people of color, and to have students experience being uncomfortable for a brief time by annoyingly selecting a negative word which becomes the identity for them that day,” Clemons added. “I wrote up all these words, and I put them on a table. And I said, “Okay, everybody is going to pick a word.’”
However, before Clemons had her students select a word, she told committee members that she wrote the “N” word on the chalkboard for her students to see. According to Clemons, several of her white students were unfamiliar with what the “N” word was. Clemons then instructed students to form a circle if they believed that she was the “N” word.
“I was not surprised when several students [formed] the circle to say that that was who I was,” Clemons said, adding that many students stated they believed that based upon things they’re parents had said.
“They were honest with me, and I wanted that honesty from them,” Clemons said.
After the exercise, Clemons had each student select one of the negative words, such as stupid or lazy, from the table, explaining that the word they selected is what they are. When the students protested, Clemons pointed to the “N” word on the chalkboard and said, “That word up on the board is not me either.” She then instructed the students to rip up the words they had selected and throw them away because they were “trash.”
“There’s power in your words,” Clemons told her students. “I want you to know that your world is bigger than this circle, bigger than that little town you live in, and that you’re going to meet other people who don’t look anything like you.”
The W.Va. Legislature is scheduled to begin its 2024 Regular Session on Wednesday, Jan. 10.