Mr. Beulah stands confidently in front of his seventh-graders at Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis and asks them to do something surprising. He'd like them to take out their phones (yes, take out) and text someone they love to say, "You're in my thoughts today. Thank you for all you do for me."
It's Sept. 11, and it's important to Nate Beulah that his young charges broaden their worldview in big and little ways on that day. It's one of many examples of the teaching style that's garnered Beulah respect from students and colleagues.
Beulah teaches ethnic studies, a rare subject for middle schoolers, and the kids are soaking it up. By challenging them to consider the social, political and historical perspectives of America's diverse groups, they're developing pride in who they are, and a sense of social justice for all. Plus, he noted proudly, he's never had to send a kid to the principal.
Beulah's teaching gifts were recently honored with a 2018 Cultural Jambalaya Diversity Award. He talks about the award, and a classroom built on structure, discipline and love.
Q: You attended this very school. But you never imagined yourself standing at the head of the class. Why is that?
A: Growing up was very difficult. Nothing has ever been given to me and a lot has been taken away. I was kicked out of four or five schools in one academic year and suspended, I believe, 22 times during the same period. When I went to Northeast, no one looked like me in my textbooks, or teaching my classes. I never thought I'd end up in the education field.
Q: And yet, here you are, winning awards for your teaching. You have a master's degree in education from St. Mary's University and are working to become a K-12 principal. What changed for you?
A: I realized that no one would ever believe in me if I didn't believe in myself first. Education is one of the only things that people cannot take away from you. I want them to know that I am possible, that I come from the same struggles many of them do.
Q: Teaching ethnic studies to middle-schoolers is rare. How do you approach it?
A: In my class, we are all equal. It doesn't matter where you are from, how much money you have, what color your skin is. The only thing that matters is if we love, respect and honor one another. Approaching race from a positive standpoint allows children to realize that we are so much more alike than we are different. History has left generational scars yet to be healed, but we have to find a way to begin these conversations, take some ownership. Then, and only then, can we all begin to heal and move forward. Our kids are ready to have these conversations.
Q: Still, it's got to be dicey at times.
A: We are allowed to disagree, but never to judge someone for what they feel. We can have these tough discussions and come up with what we feel are solutions because we have to listen to one another. As the semester gets going, the kids take over and, even if the conversation gets heated, they won't judge one another out of the love and respect that they have built.
Q: The welfare of young black men carries a particular urgency to you. How do you best help them?
A: Our young black boys are amazing. They just need a fair opportunity, with the same supports. We have to remember that there are systems set up that aren't geared for the success of certain groups, but systems can be changed. We can create curriculum that deals with identity and perception, as well as race, ethnicity and culture. That creates an opportunity for all to understand who they are and where they fit.
Q: You've been homeless. How does that experience affect your teaching?
A: I understand what some of my students carry with them each day. It's hard to learn when you haven't gotten any sleep. It's difficult to pay attention when your home life is in a shambles. School may not be your first priority if your father is in prison, or your mother is on drugs. I have an opportunity to genuinely care for kids, and a responsibility to do what I can.
Q: Tell us about your parents, with whom you are very close. Did they build resilience into you?
A: My mother, Linda Lamont, is my rock. She grew up in a time when it was not OK to be a white woman dating black men, even though people in her family were biracial and Native. She was shunned and forced to grow up fast. She could have given up on all of us so long ago and had a much better life for herself, but she was never willing to compromise the love she has for her children. I'm so grateful to have a father, too, because I know that so many young men do not, which is sad. He fought in Vietnam at 18. I see a lot of him in the strength I have. And my grandmother, Marybelle Barkley, is a beautiful soul. She works the third shift at Walmart in Delaware. I try to call her every week and steal some unconditional love from her.
Q: At one point, you hoped to play professional football?
A: I've played football most of my life. It allowed me to gain an education and stay alive in the process. It didn't work out professionally and I struggled with that for a long time, but I had to move forward and be proud of the brothas that did catch on to careers. If the Vikings need a safety, I doubt the kids will mind if I leave for a few months.
Q: How is it to teach at the same school as your brother, Jeremy?
A: We love it. We have lunch every so often. We are the first people in our family to earn our master's degrees, which we finished in the same year.
Q: What did you think when you heard you'd won a diversity award?
A: I was taken aback. People from where I am rarely win education awards. I'm very proud because it says to my parents that maybe they did do something right with me. And it tells my students that they can create beauty and opportunity, too.