Phillip requires a great deal of individual attention to follow through on written assignments to complete them on time. He demonstrates good general knowledge orally, but seems to have difficulty putting his ideas in writing.
–an excerpt from my Grade 4 report card
Long before I could read an analog clock, I knew intimately the subtleties of my teachers’ faces.
I understood the way their foreheads softened as they moved from anger to disappointment or how their lips pursed when my name, sitting sour on their tongues, was about to be used and made an example for the class.
On my first day of grade one, Mrs. M—, pulled me aside and asked “What language do you speak at home?” I immediately thought of my neighbours from China who spoke Chinese and responded, “Jamaican.” Mrs. M— nodded gently, took my hand in hers, then escorted me to a room at the end of the hallway. There, I spent the remainder of the day with a half-dozen other children, colouring pictures, playing with flashcards, and singing “Old McDonald.”
It was only later that evening, as I witnessed my mother’s outrage upon hearing about the day’s activities, that I realized something was wrong.
“Phillip, you were born here. You speak English. Our family is Jamaican but we speak English,” mother said.
She then dragged me by the hand as fast as she could back to the school.
“What language did you ask him the question in?” mother interrogated Principal L— and Mrs. M—.
They fumbled over their words.
“And which language did he respond in?” she asked before adding, “So why, if you asked him a question in English, and he responded in English, why is he in ESL? His first language is English!”
That was my first and last day of ESL.
In my new grade one class, I quickly learned to recognize the tightening of Mrs. A—’ s cheeks as a warning sign. Each day, her eyes gently traversed the classroom as she took attendance only to arrive at my desk as a glare. Her lips folded onto themselves as she enunciated “Phillip,” pushing the second “p” from her lips with such disdain, that the syllable seemed to bounce off the walls. Phillip-uh. Phillip-uh. Then, there was a day she asked the class to clean our desks. She carefully walked around the room, peering into each open desk, until she broke stride at mine. My efforts, she told the class, was unsatisfactory. So, she asked me (and only me) to clean my desk again. When I refused, she raised her voice and demanded that I start over. When I refused again, she raised my desk. First, off the ground, and then above her waist, dumping its contents to the floor.
“Phillip-uh, pick everything up and start over!”
I told her that since she dumped the items on the floor, she should be the one to pick them up.
Mrs. A— sent me to the principal’s office. I was nothing if not principled as a youth.
The confusion of being segregated from my classmates, the image of my pencils splayed on the floor, the isolation of walking alone down the school stairs and across its glossy terrazzo floors to the principal’s office from grade one to grade six—these are my earliest educational experiences. Each of these early memories is woven together in my mind in a deeply painful narrative about an insecure Black boy taught to believe he was incompetent.
These are some of the experiences I’m trying to write about in my first book, Where do we begin?. It’s a collection of narrative essays exploring formations of Black masculine identities in Canada through analyses of media representation, activism, politics, and sexuality. Several of the essays begin with excerpts from my childhood report cards and the racism they often engender. For me, early microaggressions such as a teachers’ observations about my ‘large muscles’ and ‘excessive strength’ as a child add important context to the racism I now face as an adult. These are some of the many continuities between flashcards and carding, academic streaming and segregation, between policing and Policing.
Writing these essays is difficult. As an emerging writer, I routinely confront what many call “imposter syndrome,” an often debilitating self-doubt. These struggles are neither novel nor surprising to most BIPOC writers. Indeed, many writers have written about the challenges of self-doubt and insecurity that accompany their writing process. Few, however, address the ways in which these insecurities are often linked to past pain and hardships, a byproduct of trauma. Few writers warn that the blinking cursor is in fact a clock that charts the passage of time between insights, or that the saddest days of your life – like the passing of your father when you were fourteen – will ambush you early one morning, leaping out in a grand reveal from the crevices of syntax and grammar.
Narrative, I’ve come to realize, can become suffocating both as literary device and internal logic.
To allow my grade one teacher Mrs. A – and the many others like her – to shape my self-perception would be to relinquish all agency, allowing my childhood narratives to not only frame but dictate my writing practice. My writing would forever be that of an underdog, a Black boy perplexed by an analog clock but acutely aware of his teacher’s violence, a boy reaching out for affection in a space where the big hand routinely consumed the little.
His written work shows good sentence structure and grammar. He shows good comprehension of the reading assigned in class. He needs to use his class time more productively to read independently and to work on written assignments.
In the past, I’ve tried to offset this narrative by formulating an equally potent counter-narrative, stringing together prizes, readings, grants, and other accomplishments as testament to my promise as a writer. For a brief time, I believed that I had finally fulfilled my destiny as a writer, as writing opportunities began to come my way. This, too, became suffocating as each accomplishment mapped new expectations and, with them, new worlds of despair and inadequacy.
“Well, last year I…”
“I really thought that piece would’ve generated…”
“It’s been a long time since I…”
In recent months, I have taken a major step back from writing in an effort to rid myself of the incessant expectations. I have published fewer pieces. I have tried to honour that little Black boy while not being beholden to his insecurities. I have tried to abandon the idea of being a writer and the narratives required to animate this identity. To write this book, I have had to accept that my writing is neither falsehood nor prophesy, neither destiny nor destination. It is a process in which I have chosen to partake, informed by experiences of pain and of accomplishment, but circumscribed by neither. It is a search for a space beyond narrative, a willingness to pick up the pencils, if only to write these worlds anew.
Phillip Dwight Morgan is a first-generation Canadian journalist, poet, and activist of Jamaican heritage. His writing has appeared with Maclean’s, CBC, rabble.ca, the Toronto Star, and in Briarpatch, Spacing, and Canadian Dimension magazines. Phillip is currently working on his first book, Where do we begin?, a collection of essays exploring Black masculinities in Canada through analyses of media representation, activism, politics, and sexuality. Phillip views writing as a process of healing, self-discovery, growth, and nourishment.