What Tupac, ‘Dear Mama’ can teach us about gifted students and trauma-informed teaching

OPINON: Folks failed to make the connection that as brilliant as he was, by all accounts, Tupac’s frontal lobe was just a few months beyond when it should have been fully developed.

Tupac, Dear Mama, thegrio.com
Tupac Shakur poses for a portrait during the 1994 Source Awards on April 25, 1994 at the Paramount Theatre in New York, New York. (Photo by Bob Berg/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

FX Network’s “Dear Mama” is exceptionally well done. 

I don’t know what I expected, but I tuned in because 4ever I <3 Tupac, and music documentaries are one of my favorite television genres. I was not prepared for the series’ producers to do such a good job of weaving in the influence of the Black Panther Party and the historical context of the times that shaped ‘Pac’s short life to give us an understanding of who this man really was. 

What struck me as I watched the third episode of the five-part docu-series was someone saying, ” ‘Pac was the most intelligent stupid person I know” and as one of the most reckless and impulsive. This wasn’t new information. For decades, folks have talked about how bright ‘Pac was, and even a casual glance at headlines from the early ‘90s might have suggested some recklessness.

I keep thinking about the fact that ‘Pac died just after his 25th birthday. Twenty-five is the age at which we consider one’s frontal lobe to be fully formed, and it’s the frontal lobe that governs impulsivity. Folks failed to make the connection that as brilliant as he was, by all accounts, Tupac’s frontal lobe was just a few months beyond when it should have been fully developed. He was, like so many men of the Black Panther Party that formed him – martyred before he had even fully grown up. 

The frontal lobe helps a person manage emotions, process information and make sound judgments. It’s responsible for self-control and a lot of one’s personality development. This is why the minimum age to rent a car is 25 and why car insurance rates drop at 25. 

In education circles, there is a term among researchers and psychologists, asynchrony, which describes how an incredibly bright child can be accelerated years ahead in math or reading, but have emotional development or make judgments that seem years behind. And sometimes it’s hard for people who interact with children to remember that a second grader who is reading and using vocabulary at, say a seventh-grade level, might still be a little whiny, or might struggle with behaviors like hitting their friends on the playground. We want them to “know better” because their level of conversation makes them seem older. In reality, their brains are still developing, and their emotional development is still that of a seven-year-old. 

In the case of Tupac, not only was he barely 25, he had endured so much trauma in his short life. He grew in utero while his mother was in prison (and there’s an abundance of research that shows experiences in the womb impact children and their future). He lived in poverty and felt the impact of the prison industrial complex and the FBI’s activities against the Panthers, which led to many of his mentors being in jail. ‘Pac directly experienced police brutality as a young man which exacerbated his experiences with the brutality he witnessed around him. And since research also demonstrates the impact of trauma on frontal lobe development, it stands to reason that he still had a long way to go in developing the skills necessary to regulate his impulses and, despite his logic or motivation, make good connections between his emotions and actions. 

What is largely missing from this narrative about ‘Pac and the man he was is the same thing that is often missing from stories about so many young people who look like him. Young Black men and girls in America don’t get the benefit or understanding of youth – or even childhood – in a society that inherently sees them as more adult, more dangerous, more lascivious and more threatening. They don’t get afforded the context that says “their brains are still developing,” or even the support with that development. Not in schools, not in the criminal justice system, not in stores where they’re more likely to be profiled for stealing, not in the streets, not anywhere.

Trauma-informed pedagogy (another concept pioneered by the Panthers, who first made us aware that you cannot teach a child without first addressing his basic needs), tells us we have to know what’s affecting students so we can better address their needs. But what often ends up happening is folks take the knowledge of what children may be going through and apply that paternalistically.

At best, folks have lower expectations for students who come from a certain background because people feel sorry for them or make the blanket assumption they only receive love and stability at school. Too many educators and policymakers fail to recognize that for many Black students, their experience with school is the opposite of loving or stable. But at worst, folks ask about trauma only to mind these students’ business and ascribe broad stereotypes to them while continuing to overlook their humanity. 

As I watched the third installment, it reminded me of the tendency to label brilliant Black children — especially those who may be struggling with the trauma of systemic racism and oppression and the ways it impacts their households directly — as “reckless and impulsive. How many “never reach their full potential” because we continue to live in a world that is set on not changing? It is infuriating to watch those in charge — of education systems and the conjoined criminal justice systems — put what we know to be true about children, about learning and about brain development on a shelf when it comes to poor, Black kids from the hood whose mamas struggled with addiction after institutions ostracized them and failed to see their humanity.

Autumn A. Arnett is the executive director of the Brilliance, Excellence and Equity Project, a national nonprofit organization that works to achieve equity in gifted education through culturally responsive teacher training. She is the author of Let’s Stop Calling it an Achievement Gap and Radical Ideas for Educating Black Children, both available on Amazon. 

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