Everything and Nothing: The curriculum we all deserve

Aïda Rogers

Posted April 25, 2022

By Aïda Rogers

In a parking lot in South Carolina, a family from Texas sat in their maroon minivan taking stock of what they’d just experienced. They’d waited in a restaurant 45 minutes before a worker told them they “weren’t comfortable” serving them. The reason? The family’s four-year-old. Isaya Pritchard, adopted from Africa, is Black. His parents, sister and two brothers are White.

Kaylen Pritchard, second from right, and her family.

This was June 2014. The Pritchards were visiting South Carolina, the state they planned to move to in August when Brad Pritchard started a new job in Charlotte. During their drive from Dallas through Georgia there’d been no problems. That stopped at the small restaurant in South Carolina, where the oldest child had been excited to try her first fried green tomato and what she perceived to be real southern food.

That child, the daughter, is Kaylen Pritchard. Now 18 and a senior at Catawba Ridge High School in Fort Mill, Kaylen won first place in the 2021-22 South Carolina High School Writing Contest with her recounting of what happened at that restaurant and why it should matter to anyone who cares about education in this state. In her essay, “The Curriculum My Brother Deserves,” Kaylen takes on Gov. Henry McMaster and the majority of the state legislature for their stance on critical race theory. And she quotes McMaster, in an interview with Columbia’s State newspaper, saying “… it seems to me that it [critical race theory] is certainly not necessary for the education of young people four years old all the way through high school.” To which she writes:

“My brother has been on the receiving end of the bitter teeth of racism ever since he first came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the United States at eighteen months old. If my young siblings and I had to experience the confusion and fear of being turned away from an establishment because of one of our skin colors, we were old enough to learn about the deeply rooted issues that led to such manifestations of racism.”

Yeah, she went there. I’m going with her. Joining us, I believe, is Dr. Ray McManus, poet and professor, who judged this year’s contest. Presented by the South Carolina Honors College, the contest, which I coordinate, always asks the same question: How can we make South Carolina better? McManus applauded Kaylen’s clarity and writing style, particularly the way she transitioned from a topic that was personal to her to why it should matter universally, using facts and cited sources to strengthen her position.

“The writer does this with such poise for the truth that it becomes difficult to argue against,” McManus wrote in his judge’s notes, calling the essay “powerful,” one that “moves us toward a universal truth.” And that truth is that the issue of critical race theory is one of human rights, not politics.

“We must be open to learn from one another and to hear each other’s stories so that my brother and so many others like him can inherit a country where they are free to relish in the freedom and equality upon which the United States claims to be built,” Kaylen wrote.

So what is the truth about critical race theory? Learning for Justice, a department within the Southern Poverty Law Center, defines CRT as “a school of thought that explores and critiques American history, society, and institutions of power (including government and legal systems) from a race-based perspective.” The definition is longer, but I wonder how learning about the effects of racism and segregation on Americans of all colors could be anything but educational, no matter how ugly or uncomfortable its lessons. Kaylen wonders that too.

“In observations of people my age, the understanding kids have across the board of CRT is next to none,” Kaylen told me. “So schools need to do a better job teaching the history of the Black American experience and how it continues to affect the Black American experience today.”  

Happily, the Pritchards settled well into their hometown. Kaylen, a dedicated clarinetist and woodwinds captain for the high school band, loves Fort Mill, where several of her friends are international adoptees – from China, Guatemala, Russia, Burkina Faso. In Texas, many families in their church had adopted children from Africa.

“That’s why this topic is so important to me,” she said. “It’s clear we live in an increasingly global community and it’s important that we analyze the unique history of minority families and how it plays into modern events.”

Her mother, she reports, “is very wary” of letting Isaya, now 10, wear hoodies, especially at night. There have been family conversations about how her Black brother needs to be more careful than her White ones. She’s noticed over the years that people assume Isaya is better at sports than his brothers Josh and Andrew – and laughingly she says that’s true – but how they also assume Josh and Andrew are better at school. Isaya, she says, is “highly intelligent” and “right on track with his class.”

Kaylen doesn’t think those people are intentionally rude. “A lot of subconscious tendencies are a symptom of deeply rooted racism,” she said.

Sometimes, the racism is more overt, like the time she overheard a man sitting on a bench in a Charlotte mall saying to his wife, “why is that n-word baby with that White family?”

Upsetting as that was, it wasn’t as bad as what happened at that restaurant. In 2014.

Aïda Rogers writes from an old house in Columbia and a new porch in McClellanville. Her three-volume anthology series, State of the Heart: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love, includes stories by 108 Palmetto State writers.

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