MALCOLM CAWTHORNE, the longest-serving Black teacher at Brookline High School, leaned close to his computer screen and spoke firmly to the mostly white group of administrators in the Zoom meeting. “I’m not cleaning up your [expletive] anymore.”
Hearing her normally gentle husband speak to his colleagues like that startled Lori Cawthorne. A human resources administrator at Harvard University’s libraries, she was working a few feet away at the dining room table in their Chestnut Hill apartment. She glanced at him and saw exhaustion in his eyes. He is a giant teddy bear most days, she says, and uses his booming voice sparingly in a tough-love kind of way. Malcolm Cawthorne, a history teacher and an administrator himself, didn’t yell in that Zoom meeting before 25 colleagues. But even at half-throttle, his voice can silence a room.
It was late June 2020, a month before Cawthorne would turn 50. America was roiling in protests against systemic racism in policing after George Floyd was killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nine minutes. For many white people, Floyd’s death was an awakening to contemporary racism and a call to action. For Lori and Malcolm Cawthorne, however, the events of the summer were less surprising than tragic, a painful repeat of the racism Black people have always faced in America.
Floyd’s killing and the subsequent protests have affected Malcolm Cawthorne in another way, though. More than ever, he has felt as if he were on 24-7 call at his school because of a newfound urgency among well-intentioned white colleagues who want to do something to help, and quickly. Many white teachers and administrators are scrambling to educate themselves and their students about the ways racism infects every aspect of American society. But the more they want to help, the more they seem to need from the school’s few Black teachers and administrators.
Cawthorne was already upset over the way a group of white teachers had handled a virtual lesson on George Floyd. The teachers had provided their remote students with a link to an article that took them directly to a video of Floyd being killed, images that some parents, Black parents especially, feared would traumatize their children. The parents complained to Black teachers and administrators, who then had to become the problem-solvers for a problem they did not create.
Cawthorne agreed with parents that letting the video link slip through, even unintentionally, was insensitive. Now, less than a month later, hearing administrators again push for lessons on Floyd made him fume. He did not want to shut down discussions about racism in classes. In fact, he had founded the school’s racial awareness course, the only elective offered on that topic, and recruited a white colleague to co-teach it. He wanted students to understand that confronting racism was not just the responsibility of people of color. It was everyone’s problem.
But on that Zoom call, he was alarmed because most teachers were absent from the discussion, and he knew training over the summer would focus primarily on preparation for remote teaching. At the same time, teachers and administrators of color at Brookline High were hurting, because of Floyd and the way the COVID-19 pandemic had further deepened racial inequities. But did his white colleagues know that?
“We can’t expect teachers to do this right without training,” Cawthorne says. “We have evidence, particularly around George Floyd, if we only have white teachers in the room, we’re going to mess it up.”
He worried most of all that his white colleagues’ passion to act would inadvertently hurt students of color if ill-prepared lessons were taught. Trying to prevent students of color from experiencing more pain than they already do from everyday racism was exhausting.
“There’s an invisible tax on Black teachers and teachers of color,” says R. Davis Dixon, a psychology professor at Hampton University, a historically Black institution in Virginia, and the lead author of a 2019 Education Trust/Teach Plus study on turnover among teachers of color and strategies to retain them. “They end up shouldering a lot of responsibilities that other folks just don’t have to. And then there’s the psychological cost, where you are forced to live the trauma of racism and systemic oppression while being the face of changing that in your school.”
Dixon’s research shows that many teachers of color — who make up just 20 percent of public school teachers nationwide, even though students of color now make up roughly half of the enrollment — volunteer to tackle systemic racism, train colleagues, and run sessions about racism for students. Administrators often take the teachers’ efforts for granted rather than offering additional pay, resources, training opportunities, and emotional support. Taken together, all of this may help explain why Black and Latino teachers leave the education field at higher rates than white ones, even at double the rate in some school systems.
This sort of pressure is nothing new to Cawthorne. For the last 23 years, he has been a leader on racial issues both at Brookline High, where just over half of the student body is white, and for his town of Brookline. He won the school’s 2017 teacher of the year award partly because of nominations touting him as the “go-to person” on race, and is in his second year as coordinator of the school’s METCO program. The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus also recently honored him with a Black Excellence award for his work at the high school and in the town.
Since Floyd’s killing, demands on Cawthorne have so increased that his wife has grown worried about his inability to say no to requests that range from “Will you serve on a diversity committee?” to “Can you talk to this distraught parent about the racist graffiti found in the bathrooms?” This school year, her husband agreed to take on yet another volunteer position in the town, as a member of the Task Force to Reimagine Policing in Brookline. “Folks immediately go to him as the voice,” she says. “That’s a lot to ask of a person.”
Cawthorne, for his part, worries he will let students of color down if he stays silent. “I do think I always have this burning feeling that I can’t really wait for somebody else to do it or it’s just not going to get done,” he says. His late father, a Harvard-educated teacher who became a dean at Boston College, instilled that attitude in him. “One of the things he always used to say is, ‘I can be tired in my coffin.’”
CAWTHORNE GREW UP IN BROOKLINE in the 1970s and ’80s and is himself a graduate of Brookline High, as are his two daughters, now both in their 20s. His eldest, Mariah Brobbey, teaches seventh-grade Spanish at an Indianapolis middle school. She, too, finds it hard to turn down requests to serve on race and equity committees, even as she feels the added burden of them, and keeps speaking up when she sees examples of racial inequity at her school. “There’s this unwritten rule in the Cawthorne family. We’re never satisfied with things,” Brobbey says. “I definitely feel like I have to fix it when there’s a screwup.”
Cawthorne, his wife, and younger daughter live in a brick duplex in Chestnut Hill, one of the toniest sections of Brookline. But he also knows well how through its history the town fought attempts to be annexed by Boston, a battle that Cawthorne and other historians see as the town’s efforts to keep itself white. This attitude was still more or less in place in 1973, when Cawthorne’s parents moved to town. When his father arrived for an appointment to view an apartment, the real estate agent took one look at him and said, “Oops, it’s already rented.” (Cawthorne’s parents filed a discrimination complaint with the state.)
Just as Cawthorne was about to start kindergarten, his parents learned he would be the only Black child in his class. They persuaded the school system to send him to a different Brookline school, where he could at least be one of a few students of color. Hearing that teachers often were setting lower expectations for Black students, they helped create the Concerned Black Citizens of Brookline, a group of parents who wanted to ensure that the town’s schools gave their children the same opportunities for high-level classes as they gave white students, as well as to raise awareness of racism and stereotyping. In Brookline grocery stores, recalls Malcolm’s mother, LaVerne Cawthorne, people sometimes asked her if she was a cleaning lady. “The general attitude is, ‘You don’t belong here,’” she says.
In Malcolm Cawthorne’s Brookline High class of 590, there were around 45 Black students. His school had a clear racial divide at the time, particularly between white Irish American students who historically lived in an area called Whiskey Point and Black and Latino students, many of whom lived in Boston and came to Brookline through the METCO program. There was a racist incident as he started in 1984. “There was a stairwell for years referred to as the Point stairs,” he recalls, and someone there wrote a racial slur followed by the command “go home.” Cawthorne remembers a sense of helplessness afterward. “I felt a little bit like, we’re never going to catch this person. It could easily happen again.”
He also felt discrimination by peers in other ways. He was respected as an athlete, but not as a scholar, even though he took honors classes. When he was accepted to Bucknell University, some students refused to believe it. “It’s easier to say that a Black kid is better than me at basketball than to say a Black kid beat me at getting into Bucknell,” Cawthorne says. Even though his yearbook showed him smiling with a refrain from a James Brown song: “Say it loud! I’m BLACK and I’m Proud,” it was hard to feel that pride at Brookline High.
In the end, he rejected Bucknell because he saw it as too similar to his mostly white high school. Instead, he chose the historically Black institution Grambling State University in Louisiana. No one questioned his right to be there, and in his Black professors he had mentors who talked to him about working to achieve equality for Black people in every facet of society. “They were good at imploring us to take leadership roles and to know we had a voice,” he says. For the first time, Cawthorne saw teaching as a career possibility because, for the first time, Black men and women were teaching him.
After college, Cawthorne taught for five years at a predominantly Black high school in Des Moines, where most teachers were white and there was a zero-tolerance discipline policy. “If there was a punch thrown, it was an automatic suspension for both kids,” he says. He thought suspending the students, many of whom were struggling academically, was counterproductive.
A former student, Corey Pinks, now 43, recalls the way Cawthorne made it clear during the first weeks of a US history class that fighting is not the way to resolve differences. Two boys in class started to fight, and Cawthorne physically separated them and made them sit down in front of the class. “He said, ‘Not here. You don’t fight over your problems. You talk them out,’’' Pinks recalls. “Most teachers would just send you to the office, get you sent out of school. He didn’t want to see that. He wanted to break the cycle.”
IN 1998, DESPITE MIXED FEELINGS about his alma mater, Cawthorne accepted an offer to return to Brookline High to teach history. A few years later, a Black dean who had taught an African American history class retired. “I inherited his class and the unofficial title of school historian,” Cawthorne says. He also soon inherited another duty: He became the teacher to whom white teachers and administrators turned for advice when racist incidents or conflicts occurred in the school.
He also became a frequent trainer on race and equity issues, a duty he keeps today in a 2,000-student school that is increasingly diverse. In the past two decades, Brookline High’s student population has changed from more than 70 percent white to 53 percent white. The next largest racial or ethnic group is Asian American, at 16 percent, followed by Latinos at 13 percent, multiracial students at 10 percent, and Black students at 8 percent.
In 2016, Cawthorne gave a speech he titled “Black Man in Front” to dozens of teachers in a library at Brookline’s Lawrence School. He said he sometimes felt frustrated as a Brookline High student because he never had a Black male teacher for any subject. “I struggled not seeing ‘me’ in front of my classrooms. I had phenomenal teachers but none looked like me.” The only Black adult men he knew at the school were a dean, a program coordinator, and his basketball coach. “But they never stood in front of me to teach quadratic equations, the theory of evolution, verb conjugation, nor slavery. This ate away at my being.” Black teachers, he said, can help students of color build pride in their racial identity and can help dispel stereotypes that people of color in schools are more often custodians than teachers or administrators.
He told the teachers about how Corey Pinks, one of his first students, had failed the first quarter of his history class. “He kept asking, ‘How could you fail me? You are cool!’ I kept explaining that I wasn’t that cool. He would need to do better,” Cawthorne said. For “this African American boy, I began to be the Black man in front.” Pinks, after joining the Marines, went on to become the first in his immediate family to graduate from college and today helps clients in a homeless veterans program navigate the mental-health system.
After Cawthorne finished his talk to the teachers, he fielded their questions for nearly a half-hour. When one teacher asked, “How have things changed for Black students in Brookline schools?” Cawthorne sighed. He mentioned progress, including new programs such as the African American and Latino Scholars Program that aims to get more students of color into the school’s highest-level classes. But he also said too many students still experienced racial slurs and microaggressions. “They sting. They are wounds that perhaps heal but can reopen easily.”
To illustrate, he brought up incidents at Brookline High during recent years, including two different occasions where students used the N-word against other students. In one case, two former students and a current one created a Snapchat video that went viral within the school community; they said the slur several times and directed it to a Black student in the scholars program.
The current student was in Cawthorne’s US history class. He spoke to the student about the effect of the N-word not just on Black students but on Cawthorne himself. “You fit in a long line of Brookline High kids who use that word with venom to hurt people,” he told the student. More racist incidents and student walkouts in protest followed, despite assemblies, despite training for teachers, despite the headmaster’s pronouncement that this is “not us.”
At Cawthorne’s library talk, another teacher asked, “As a white woman teaching in an elementary school, what is one thing I could do tomorrow to help with my students of color? I need an action plan.”
Give the students a way to tell their stories, Cawthorne urged in a soft voice. “Think about what would best serve the kids you have and try. You might fail. Who’s the adult in the building? Be the risk taker. Just try to provide the space.”
CAWTHORNE’S STUDENTS say he intuitively knows how to provide a space for teens to talk. In the classroom, he is like an orchestra conductor working to get the most out of each player. During discussions, he gives every student an opportunity to speak but does not force the issue. During one exercise, he sets his phone timer for 30 seconds and lets silence fill the room if a student prefers not to talk. When the timer dings, he softly utters the next student’s name.
Kate Leslie, the white teacher he recruited to co-teach the racial awareness course, at first chafed at the stretches of quiet. Then, observing Cawthorne, she realized the power of a technique that slows down time, especially in discussions about race. “It came out of his knowledge that kids needed to sit in that silence to be forced to think deeply.”
Cawthorne often uses himself and his experiences to teach lessons on stereotyping, especially in the class he taught with Leslie. “We have our personal check list of what we fear,” he told the class one day, then stood in the center of the room. “Before you knew me, how many of you were afraid of me?” he asked. None of the teens admitted to any trepidation, but Cawthorne said he often sensed strangers’ fear of him, given he is over 6 feet tall and weighs 380 pounds. “African Americans have to be doubly conscious of what stereotypes are, how to break them, and when to be you,” he said. A student asked Cawthorne for examples. “In my neighborhood, in Chestnut Hill, I purposely smile at every white person I see,” he explained. “That’s just walking home. That’s exhausting.”
Alexis Raitt, a white student, took the racial awareness class with Cawthorne and liked his gentle but frank teaching approach. Now a sophomore at Northeastern University, she has stayed in touch with him. She wishes that it did not always fall to him to be this oracle of teaching on race at Brookline High, “though some people may see him like that,” she says. “I would argue that it’s more the responsibility of white people to educate themselves.”
For Cawthorne, it’s a complicated algorithm to figure out if and when he should be the one speaking out. “That’s a changing thing for me,” he says. “There are definitely times where I feel if I don’t say something, I’m shirking my responsibility.”
There are times, too, when he thinks he may be the only person who notices a problem. Take January 2017, for instance. He attended a staff meeting in the school auditorium about the appointment of the next headmaster. The Brookline superintendent announced that he had promoted the interim headmaster, Anthony Meyer, who is white, as the permanent one. When the teachers in the auditorium responded to the news with a standing ovation, Cawthorne stayed seated, stared straight ahead and seethed, even though he liked Meyer. The school district had promised to conduct a full search for the new headmaster and include a pool of diverse candidates, but then just named Meyer to the post without an inclusive search. “I felt this was institutional racism,” Cawthorne says now. “I just see it as this is recurring history in Brookline.”
Cawthorne brought up his concerns about the broken promise with his history colleagues. Some saw no issue, but Oyeshiku Carr, a Black teacher, understood immediately. “When we talk about white privilege and white supremacy, I don’t think anything makes it better,” Carr says of the appointment of Meyer without a search. “Even as nice a person as he is, just the fact that if he had been a Black person, that wouldn’t have happened for him that way [is telling].”
Cawthorne is so well known at Brookline High and in town that he’s been nicknamed the “mayor.” He has been a football and basketball coach, and in recent years, the announcer at basketball games, where he takes his bass voice to full volume to welcome the Warriors into the gymnasium. He has experienced racist incidents and comforted his own Black students when they have been the targets of racism. He has watched other colleagues of color take on extra roles, too, including helping students organize Black Lives Matter protests. So in June 2020, it’s not like he was thinking of quitting when administrators on Zoom touted the idea of starting the school year with lessons on Floyd. But given all that he had seen go wrong over the years, he could not stay silent.
After the meeting, colleagues sent Cawthorne e-mails of support. And Meyer, the headmaster, set up a private talk via Zoom with Cawthorne to discuss what had happened. “Here’s this incredibly thoughtful, empathic teacher who is so frustrated with where we are as a school, with where we are as a country. It was definitely a ‘wow’ moment,” Meyer recalls. At the same time, Meyer wanted Cawthorne, now also an administrator, to recognize that it was every administrator’s job, regardless of race or ethnicity, to help clean up mistakes made by teachers. (Meyer agreed that it had been a serious error to include a link to a video of Floyd’s death in a virtual lesson the previous spring.)
Cawthorne recalls that he minced no words with Meyer: “I just can’t watch you guys blindly go into this and actually do more harm, and I don’t know what it’s going to take for you guys to actually see it.” He wanted Meyer and the school to pause its plans until teachers got more guidance from administrators.
The most fundamental improvement will be for Brookline High to successfully increase diversity within its teaching ranks, an effort it has worked on for years. But it continues to struggle with recruitment, hiring, and retention, which Meyer attributes to national as well as local issues. In Brookline, for example, instability at the top — the town has had three interim superintendents over two years — has made it hard to get speedy approval for competitive pay packages. In early March, the town hired its first Black superintendent, Linus Guillory; he will take over the job in July. Cawthorne, who accepted an invitation to be part of the search committee, is pleased Guillory has already met twice with a new student group at the high school examining race issues.
Cawthorne has no solution, though, for how to strike a better balance in his professional life, other than to rely on his instincts. A few months into this new school year, he declined a retired white teacher’s request to help craft a letter of protest about a school issue because he knew he was only asked as a Black voice. “There are moments where, for self-preservation, I’m not going to respond,” he says. For now, Cawthorne wants Brookline High to think more about the effect of its actions on students and staff of color.
“When the [expletive] hits the fan, they turn to people of color and ask for help,” agrees Carr, who left the school last June to help lead a private school in New York City. Carr says he had lost patience with Brookline High’s fumbling of racial issues. “For me, what Malcolm is trying to do is always swimming upstream.”
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Globe education editor, is the author of “Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance.” She is a 2020-2021 Spencer Fellow in Education Journalism at Columbia University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org