My name is Shayla George and I am a 2020 graduate from Montclair High School. As a student of the Montclair Public Schools, I attended Bradford, Mt. Hebron, and of course, Montclair High School. My experience at all three schools was lackluster, to say the least, but one thing that was common at all three schools was no one paid attention to me until I was gone.
Recently, I’ve been making a lot of noise in the town of Montclair as an activist. I’ve noticed a lot of people – people that never cared about me one way or another – started to try and take credit for who I have become. In modern-day slang, these types of people are “clout chasers.” Going to white schools as a Black student in Montclair, New Jersey means many of the adults, teachers, staff and administration won’t care about your existence or well being until you can do something beneficial for them.
What people don’t realize about clout chasers is they are actually extremely detrimental to one’s self-esteem and self-worth. During the week after the second protest I helped organize (NJ Student Blackout), there were a number of people meeting with me and acting very friendly, trying to get me to be on their side and push their agenda. Being on a Zoom panel about confronting racism and having old principals shouting me out in the chat, saying that I went to their school — for a second, I thought they genuinely liked me. But I was just being used for the power I had and the recognition they would get for knowing/“producing” me.
It was very difficult for me to deal with at first. The child in me wanted them to be talking to me for the right reasons, not using me. There was no one for me to talk to about it, which was even more damaging. To move past these feelings, I threw myself into my work, which – if it’s not clear – is not healthy. This has been a behavioral pattern ever since I was a child.
You don’t really notice being looked over as a kid, well at least I didn’t. Never saw a pattern in how I was treated, too absorbed in trying to be a kid for as long as possible. But there was a pattern — teachers assumed I cheated, I was tone policed for my “attitude,” and kept from recess for saying a word exactly like everyone else says it – and by the way, it’s “wa-ter,” not “wor-ter”.
My mother was denied the job of handling money at a school event because I believe the principal thought she would steal it. Do we think that principal enforced rules without bias?
It’s a funny thing, bias. Everyone has it, even children. I’m fond of the phrase “you get in where you fit in” and that is especially true in middle school, where social constructs and systems become more apparent. Going from a very diverse group of friends in elementary school to a majority of homogeneous friends in middle school is not a rare find. I began to be pushed away by my white friends and more welcomed by my Black friends. Because of this, race was a topic of discussion often; when something affects you every day, you tend to talk about it pretty frequently. Discussing racism was not something I walked into when my activism started and really took off, it’s something I’ve been doing all my life and have often been ostracized for.
I believe my activism (and growing up and maturing) has introduced me to people who talk about injustices, racism, and life experiences as much as me. There was never a lack of awareness, just a lack of education.
Knowledge is power, but applied knowledge is powerful –
However, once educated you cannot be uneducated. Knowledge cannot simply be taken away. The conversations I used to have about race and racism with my friends are not as in-depth as they are now, because now we understand it is the actions of the individual and the actions of the system. When we were younger, it was easy for our teachers, administration and staff to brush us off and claim we were just complaining. We lacked the terminology and education to understand that it went deeper than the actions of one teacher or one principal. The problem is the principal, the teacher, the staff, etc., but it’s also the system that allows that person to obtain that position. All my friends know that now.
It’s not a coincidence that it took me organizing two protests, speaking to the Montclair Board of Education (multiple times), getting a mass of scholarships and awards, and being on community panels, for my old schools to want anything to do with me. Just like it is no coincidence that it’s taken a claim being filed, articles in newspapers, segments on news channels, and a protest for a young Black girl to get even an ounce of notice in this school district.
Far too often, the treatment of Black people in this town and Black students in this school district is swept under the rug and hidden in hopes that people will stop talking about it.
Black lives matter before you can capitalize off of them. Black people matter, Black men matter, Black women matter, Black boys matter, Black girls matter, Black children matter always, not just when you need them to. Pay attention.
Shayla George, who graduated Montclair High School in June, served as vice president of Montclair NAACP Youth Council. George is also helping organize the Black Kids Matter rally on Saturday. She will attend Howard University this fall.