Perspective: My Experience With Racism in Pickerington Schools

Tatyana Tandanpolie
Tatyana Tandanpolie at Pickerington North High School

I didn’t know what I was looking for the day I found myself studying Damicka Bates’ social media presence. I didn’t know her and had never been her student, but I was curious. The assistant principal at Tussing Elementary, in my former school district of Pickerington, was under fire over a social media post. With my head propped on one hand and the other scrolling through Twitter, I discovered a handful of videos and photos of her with her students.

Some showed her dancing on the playground, arms cycling up and down, surrounded by excited children. Others showed her welcoming kids back to school with high-flying fist bumps and joyful exclamations. Another, from an OSU student who’d had her during middle school, showed their heartfelt exchange of messages as he thanked her for her support and she expressed her pride in him.

The controversial post, now deleted from Mrs. Bates’ personal page, featured photos from a day she’d spent with her family viewing artwork made during racial justice protests in Downtown Columbus. One photo showed her daughter posing in a sea of graffiti, directly behind one that read “F*** Police.”

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The controversy, which started on a statewide pro-police page, became a crucifixion when it entered a Pickerington discussion forum. Community members demanded her firing, calling her unfit to teach “our” kids. Hundreds of comments and reactions filled the replies. Several called her apology (since removed) “B.S.”

As I watched the internet mob rise against her, I grew angry—then scared. I saw she had many supporters, but my 10 years in Pickerington had taught me that no army of supporters could fully protect a person of color—let alone a Black woman—from the vocal group of white parents, who often have police officers in their families, rallying against her.

I feared that Mrs. Bates, who was one of the few Black educators in the district and had been offered a promotion to principal, would instead lose her job.

Seeing the videos and photos of Mrs. Bates with her students reminded me of a poem by singer Shanelle Gabriel. Gabriel, once a teaching artist, explained why she affectionately called her students “her babies” and described the restorative love a Black teacher can give to her Black students: “When I see any child or teen/ I call them my baby/ a reminder that they have a mind so fragile/ a stage developmental/ an unfinished chapter/ a title not given.”

Sprawled across my bed, I imagined that Mrs. Bates was a teacher who called her students her babies as I drifted into a memory of the teacher I’d had who did the same.

My first Black teacher was my elementary music teacher at Brice Christian Academy, Mrs. Lajoyce Daniel-Cain. She was a tall, dark-skinned woman who styled her hair in shoulder-length braids and wore earth-toned dresses. She smelled like fresh-brewed coffee mixed with a hint of sweet perfume and, occasionally, peppermint, and she graced the music room with a soul that rolled from her fingers and vocal chords like honey.

After warm-ups, she’d gather us around her staff-lined whiteboard and lead us in a call and response ritual, chanting out pitches, asking us about note names and durations, and quizzing us on the clefs.

She’d always end with the G clef, asking how it got its name. “Because the curl of (clap) the treble clef (clap) is on the G (clap) line,” we’d answer, repeating it until Mrs. Cain grew tired of the shimmy she always did to accompany it.

Some days, we’d go straight to work on African American spirituals and soulful takes on Christian classics. Other days, she’d blast music from the speakers and teach us how to dance. She challenged us weekly and showed us she loved us through her love of music.

I loved Mrs. Cain because she made me feel safe, cared for and seen, but I appreciate her even more now because I recognize how unapologetically Black she was in everything she did. She built the foundation for my present love of music, and she was the foundation that shouldered my love of Blackness and Black people.

When I moved away, I had Mrs. Cain as an afterschool piano instructor for another year before she, too, moved away. I haven’t seen her since.

I never had a teacher quite like Mrs. Cain again. As I navigated life in Pickerington schools from fifth grade until graduation, I rarely felt like I had a faculty member to turn to for support. I didn’t often have teachers who could understand my discomfort with being one of three Black children in a class of 25. When I came close, most would say or do something that would force me to close that part of myself off to them.

In my freshman English class at Pickerington North in 2014, I sat through a poorly moderated discussion on racism and police brutality. The student teacher split the class in two, having one group converse while the other listened before switching places. He gave us articles about the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin to discuss.

My group went first; our conversation was generic and forgettable. The next group dove into a heated debate. I looked on in awe.

And then a white classmate said: “If I were George Zimmerman, I would’ve shot him, too.”

The other Black students and I turned to each other in horror and disbelief. “Is someone going to say something?” we whispered. It wasn’t our discussion, so we couldn’t.

The white teacher and student teacher remained silent. They didn’t stop the discussion or address it. Their devastating failure to act was one that I would see often throughout my four years.

Sophomore year, a series of racist Snapchat posts by Pickerington students went viral. A North freshman named Megan took to Snapchat in blackface, wearing a dark brown foundation and captioning herself “#n***amegan” before sending the image to her friends. The school said they couldn’t discipline Megan because she wasn’t on school grounds when she took the photo.

Shortly after, a screenshot emerged showing another North student, dressed in a KKK costume, holding an ax and bat in an X over his chest. “There’s a ghost in the prop room!” its caption read. This time, the school acted, disciplining him and his photographer and ordering cultural sensitivity training for all North students.

Then a Snapchat video came out showing a student from Pickerington’s other high school cocking a shotgun and asking off-camera friends if they were “ready to go n***er hunting.” After the video gained national attention, the students were disciplined—including the one who reposted the video to expose his peers’ racist behavior.

Junior year, I received an invitation to a special AP recruitment meeting. When the letters went out during first period, I, along with many of my Black classmates, realized we were the only students invited. We were confused; something about how the letters were distributed felt off.

What we were feeling, I now understand, was discomfort with being reminded that we were Black students in a predominantly white school. We were always subconsciously aware of our Blackness, often mentally taking stock of how many of us were in a class on the first day. Our administration singling us out made us feel more alienated than we already were.

The majority-white administrators and teachers who birthed the idea didn’t understand that, though. My AP English teacher didn’t understand why his Black students were upset. My assistant principal, who called me to his office to hear my explanation of why it bothered me, didn’t either. None of them understood what the Black students walking to the auditorium felt when they asked each other why the crowd only included Black people. They couldn’t understand, and they didn’t even try.

Throughout my time in Pickerington schools, racist acts came and went with the seasons. Administrators disregarded them and forgot them, while some students left their stories unreported and others ignored them.

Although I didn’t know it then, it traumatized me. Looking back, I can see it in the way I shrugged off racist comments overheard in the halls and in my distrust of most white teachers to address anything regarding race.

After yet another Snapchat incident, a friend and I drafted a petition calling for the school to stop ignoring acts of race, gender and sexuality discrimination and to educate students on the histories of marginalized people—and asking faculty themselves to model inclusivity.

We garnered more than 200 signatures, but when my friend asked a teacher if she could read the petition to the class, she was instead reported to the principal. When the teacher told us the principal wanted to see us, we were terrified. It was college admissions season, and we were afraid of any blips on our faultless school records. It felt like we had a lot to lose if we continued with what experience suggested would be a fruitless quest for change.

We abandoned the petition, a moment of self-disempowerment I now see resulted from racial trauma. My school’s failure to address students’ racism had taught me that my voice held little value if it spoke against bigotry. I learned to devalue my voice before I got the chance to speak.

Last month, the board announced Mrs. Bates’ fate: She lost her promotion to principal. Unsettled, I looked to social media for a response. Some of her pages and profiles had gone private or disappeared altogether.

I thought about the Black students and parents who rallied behind her, petitioned for her protection and wrote to the school board in her defense. Some of them, like me, had never interacted with her but understood how valuable she is to Pickerington’s Black community and children. I imagined them looking for her joyful posts, mourning her absence.

Though two years removed from Pickerington schools, my feeling of disempowerment returned when I learned how Mrs. Bates had been treated. But that feeling is different now—I’ve learned how valuable my voice is. So I’ve written this essay with hope that it will tell the story my 18-year-old self never imagined I could.