This article is part of a special collaboration between Michigan in Color and Groundcover News. Read the rest of the joint issue here.
Throughout my life, I struggled with school. I got my education through the Ann Arbor School District. I attended Bach Elementary School, Slauson Middle School and Pioneer High School.
As a young lad, I first attended Mack Elementary School. Mack Elementary had a predominantly Black student body; it was where all my neighborhood friends went to school. One week into the start of my schooling, the AAPS relocated me to Bach Elementary because I lived on Ashley Street between Kingsley Street and Miller Avenue. I was outside the district and had to attend Bach Elementary, which had predominantly white students.
Every year in elementary school, at the end of the school year, I would have a one-on-one talk with the teacher about my disruptive behavior. I was simply moving to the next grade because I was too big, he explained, and was not going to let me disrupt next year’s class.
In the fifth or sixth grade the principal of Bach Elementary, my teacher and my grandmother had an IEP meeting concerning my disruptive behavior. In that meeting they decided to put me in special education for the emotionally impaired. I was sent to Thurston Elementary School.
Mr. Lee was the teacher and Judy was the assistant teacher. In special education class they required two teachers per classroom. Besides Mr. Lee, in special ed., the teachers were called by their first names. The first thing I noticed was that the educational curriculum was more reflective of third-grade education. I noticed this throughout the special education system as a whole — even in middle school and high school the educational material was kept at a third- to fourth-grade level.
They tended to deal with behavioral issues more than actually educating the students. For example, every day in school, the teacher, the assistant and the students would have two group meetings per day to discuss behavioral issues. The teacher and the assistant would basically engage in conversation with the students that would end with a student (or students) being put on timeout where the student would sit in a corner in a study carrel. If the disruptive behavior continued, then the student would be sent to the blue room. The blue room was just that: a blue room with five divided sections for disruptive students to sit in for 15 minutes.
My favorite staff member was a big Black guy, named Big Mike, who ran the blue room. Let’s say the student doesn’t want to and refuses to go to the blue room; then the teacher and staff (Big Mike) would gang up and restrain the student until he submits or calms down. I was never restrained during the time I was in special education.
Middle school was the worst. By this time, I’d earned my way back to general schooling. I lived in Principal Michael’s office at Slauson Middle School.
It got so bad they decided to put me back in special ed. After another IEP meeting they sent me to Pleasant Lake School, which was located out in the country (the boondocks). Then Pleasant Lake relocated in Ann Arbor to Lakewood school. A lot was learned there. This was when I started my journey in rational thinking. I hated everything about special ed: no girls in class; when we walked down the school hallways they made us line up in a single file line; we had to ride the short bus with other students with real severe disabilities to school.
I felt deep inside myself I needed to get out of that place. I wanted to be like all the other students in general school. I made up my mind that I would get out of special ed. and back into general school. My problem was that I wanted to argue with teachers and staff. I learned the power of rational thought. Being emotionally impaired means you have a tendency to not think rationally and allow emotion to dictate behavior. Eventually, I learned the philosophy of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” I learned how to have proper dialogue with them and soon I was back in general school again.
It was a long process in order to get back into general school. It was called the “step system.” There were five steps to complete. And they used a point system; every class the teacher would give points on your behavior in class and you had to get so many points a day. The student had a sheet of paper to keep track of his points.
Step one, the sheet of paper was pink. If you were well-behaved that week you would get rewarded; it was called honor roll and progress. The students that got enough points for good behavior got to watch a movie and eat cheese popcorn. A teacher named Gary used to make the best cheese popcorn. Two weeks of good behavior then you move to step two.
Step two, the student would get a blue sheet of paper to keep a record of points. It took three weeks to move to step three. Step three was a yellow sheet of paper. It took four weeks to move to step four. Step four was a green sheet of paper. The last and final step five — a purple sheet of paper. After this step you are allowed to reenter general public school part-time for a semester. If a student behaved and continued on the right path the next semester, he could reenter general public schools full-time.
In 1988, at the tender age of 15 years old, I started high school at Pioneer. That year, Pioneer hired a Black principal, Dr. Jones. Students in this era produced no-nonsense principals like Dr. Jones. I am going to make it plain for you: In one week’s time a lot of Black students got kicked out of high school forever, including myself. I’m not going to lie; the people that got kicked out of school were involved in gangs and street activities.
This is when alternative schooling came into effect. Many students who were having problems in general high school and were no longer allowed to attend “forever” had a choice to continue high school courses in order to graduate or obtain a G.E.D. certificate from alternative schools. In the Ann Arbor area, students like myself went to Stone School. Most students continued taking high school courses at Stone School in order to graduate but I decided to get the G.E.D. certificate instead.
General Education Development signifies that you have an equivalent level of knowledge compared to a high school graduate, without actually having graduated high school. I felt that I had no other choice because I was so far behind in high school credits. It only made sense to get my G.E.D. The G.E.D. test consists of four tests: English, math, social studies and science. It took me a semester to complete. I did well on English and social studies but struggled a little on math and science, but passed all four tests on the first try. I felt a sense of accomplishment.
As time went on, I lingered around at home at my grandparents’ house smoking weed, listening to Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre and being constantly reminded by the commercials on TV that “this is your brain on drugs” or “a mind is a terrible thing to waste” and finally this one: “You are never too old to go back to school.” I struggled, but came up with the conclusion to go to college.
Needless to say, my struggles continued as I attended my first year at Washtenaw Community College in 1994.
The first thing I learned about college is that it’s like a full-time job. It requires a lot of time and effort. I wanted to be a doctor as a youngster, so I took a medical terminology class. I dropped that class because I felt discouraged; it was like learning another language and I was taking a full class load and got overwhelmed and dropped out completely.
I returned back to WCC in 1996. I took a computer application class in Microsoft Excel, and got a B grade. I also passed a basic writing class in 2009. As adult life started taking its toll on me as far as being married, raising a family and all the other life challenges, I decided to put schooling on the back burner. I became a cab driver and drove Blue Cab for nearly 15 years where I serviced the Washtenaw County area. I drove University of Michigan students to all the nightclubs — Scorekeepers (Skeeps), Good Time Charley’s and Rick’s — and back and forth to the airport. Those were the good-o-days of cab driving. Thanks to Uber and Lyft I am now a retired cab driver with a new occupation, writing and selling Groundcover newspapers. Now that my daughter is all grown up and is an army nurse and my son is in high school, I feel now is the time to go back to school to further my education.
In the winter 2023 semester, I’m taking an English class toward my Journalism Associate’s degree and Music Production and Audio Engineering certificate. Music runs in my blood. I’m a lifetime musician. In my youth I played the bass guitar and piano. In 2012, I started a music group called Get-Cha-Mind Right Crew. GCMRC is a crew of M-cee’s and artists in the wilderness of North America striving to have their music heard throughout the world and beyond. Get-Cha-Mind Right Crew Music is on music platforms now. My other passion is to express myself through writing. I like writing rap songs and love songs and things I experience in my lifetime. I also find it necessary to express or write about issues that concern me. For example, I wrote an article on the “Gentrification of Ann Arbor” in the Nov. 1, 2022 issue of Groundcover News. I got a great response and encouraged all to check out that article. I am truly happy to have found my true passion and purpose in music and writing.The saga continues and the beat goes on. I plan to take one or two classes a semester and prioritize my time in order to get school assignments done. I am confident that things will work out and I will successfully accomplish my goals. I’m finishing up my second week of class and things are going well. I like my instructor and there are good vibes overall. Meeting new people and getting back into schooling is exciting; I’m looking forward to getting involved in different student activities. I have reached out to the school radio station and trained to host my own show. Sometime soon I’ll be hosting my own show on Orchard Radio. I’m also looking to get involved with the WCC newspaper, The Washtenaw Voice. Even though I struggled with schooling throughout my life, I feel encouraged. I know if I just take my time and put my school work first, I believe I can obtain a degree in journalism and a music production and audio engineer certificate.
Shanty Wobagege Ali (Mike Jones), Groundcover vendor No. 113, can be reached at email@example.com.