Black Male Educators of New Orleans: An Interview With Charlie Vaughn, Jr.
Exhibit the likeness. Provoke imagination. Instill into minds. Establish perception.
The seeds of change are planted with intention. They are nurtured, watered, and cultivated with love. Then the results are set free to flourish and plant seeds of their own.
But of course there are still black males who choose to teach in New Orleans. With this series I hope to shine a light on some of these local heroes—to examine their motivations and explore their experiences in the classroom.
Three years ago, Charlie Vaughn, Jr. began teaching art at Joseph S. Clark Preparatory High School in Tremé, a historic black high school now a part of the First Line charter network. First Line has a rep for mingling first-rate academics with creative freedom, and though Vaughn, aka UptownzIllest, hadn’t taught in a formal setting before, he’d been making art ever since he was inspired by hip hop back in the 1980s.
Growing up in Uptown, Hollygrove to be exact, Vaughn was surrounded by family. Along with his parents and brother, he spent weekends with his grandmother, aunts, and many cousins. He graduated from Warren Easton Fundamental School and received an associate’s degree in commercial art from Delgado Community College. Displaced by Katrina, Vaughn returned to New Orleans, set up shop as Uptown Artwerx, and has been teaching there in addition to at Clark.
Lamont Douglass: What was your first experience as a high school teacher?
Charlie Vaughn: Initially I was a part-time teacher. I came in and when I started they were saying, “Yeah, just go show them some art.”
I felt I could do that, show them some art, discuss a few pieces and the class will be over, it’s only 40 minutes. They neglected to tell me about the discipline and the kids wilding out.
We were having a protest when I first got the job. They were supposed to be shutting Clark down. The students were really on some anything-goes stuff. The kids thought I was a substitute, so they weren’t taking the class for real, they weren’t respecting my mind, and I was like, “Why is this job making me so tired?”
I would come home and my wife would ask me how was my day. I said, “Ahh fights, they had to hold somebody down, a girl pulled out another girl’s hair, it was so much trauma and drama.” I felt like I was wearing my wife and family down and felt funny talking about it. I finally made it to the last day of school.
Three years later you’re still teaching. What made you come back?
Vaughn: I’m packing my stuff at the end of the last day, and I hear a knock at the door. I think, Who wants something now?” When I open the door, one of my students comes in and says, “I just want to say I’m sorry. I apologize for the whole class because they were wild. I couldn’t do what you do.”
I told him thanks just for being on some grown-up action and coming speak to me on this level. I told him that’s respect and that’s what I’ve been looking for from day one. If I can throw that back at you and you throw that out to them, that’s how it spreads out. From then on, the respect started bouncing from him and then to another one and then another.
What have you discovered is important to these young adults?
Vaughn: Trust and consistency. Almost every holiday break they would ask, “You coming back?” I wondered why they kept asking that. But that’s exactly what happens—when they come off of any holiday break, they are looking around to see who’s back. When my students saw me for orientation for my second year everybody got hyped. But here’s the tricky part of that: 90 percent of the staff either were cut or quit after my first year.
That would make you a veteran teacher in your second year.
Vaughn: I’m one of the few things they remember. That year, my second year, we would get more black teachers and male teachers, but then the staff flips again. Coming into this school year, we would have more new staff and teachers. That makes it hard for young adults to trust, open up or relate to teachers. That’s a lot of turnover in their lives.
Why did you decide to work with high school students?
Vaughn: Because I know they know right from wrong. Most of them have and are taking care of younger siblings that they have to teach what’s right and wrong. You are supposed to be smarter than younger children, but you have to prove it, show me. I let them know that time is ticking. It’s all on them.
I feel like I’m privileged in certain ways because the structure in my class is loose enough to talk about all kinds of stuff, so while we’re drawing and being creative, we can chop it up. I simply ask them, What’s the problem? Holla at me. You would be amazed at how many young adults don’t ever get to have a real conversation or someone just listening to them.
What value has teaching brought to you and to these students’ lives?
Vaughn: It broke me down and it rebuilt me. Gave me a new perspective and new creativity. As far as my students go, you know, it’s an interesting dynamic when you can get something out of these children and make them be creative.
I tell them that creativity can turn into commerce. It can turn into a good release, so I try to encourage these kids that if you feelin’ it, run it. If it’s a way to get something out of your system and off of your chest, do it. It beats them saying, “Forget this, I’m about to pop somebody.” No, that is not an option.
Get your dance on, your write on, or your draw on. Do whatever you need to do to use that energy and creativity to do something positive. And that’s the part I try to give to these kids while I’m teaching them. I don’t know if it’s professional, but I tell my kids I love them. I may not love what you’re saying or I may not love what you’re doing, but I love you. I will give you the jewels that you need, but ultimately it’s all on you.