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My Federal Way teacher is a role model to students of color like me

caption: Gabe Rambayon with his teacher and basketball coach, Jeffrey Forbes Jr.
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Gabe Rambayon with his teacher and basketball coach, Jeffrey Forbes Jr.
Courtesy of Gabe Rambayon

For students of color, having a teacher with the same race or ethnicity has shown to improve test scores and reduce the likeliness of disciplinary issues. Yet only 20% of educational leaders in the United States are people of color.

Jeffrey Forbes Jr. is my teacher and basketball coach at Decatur High School in Federal Way. But more than that, he is my role model.

Forbes says he coaches basketball as a way of giving back to his community because growing up, he didn’t have a lot of people who were influential and could guide him.

He has faced a lot of adversity as a Black and Native man and sat down with me to talk about his experiences with racism.

When Forbes was in high school, he bought a Monte Carlo SS.

“The '86,” he says. “That’s considered a drug dealer car. I would get pulled over every other week or two weeks, and it’d be by either the same cop or a different cop. I didn’t think that was OK.”

As a teenager, he was followed through stores and called racial slurs at basketball tournaments.

“It’s hard to talk about,” he says. “You don’t wanna tell people you’ve been through these things, and they be like, ‘Oh, well, that’s just part of life.’ If anyone says it’s normal, it’s not normal.”

As one of the few teachers of color at Decatur High School, Forbes feels pressure.

“But when you play sports, and it’s the last couple seconds of the game, and you’re at the free throw line and you gotta make those free throws … I’ve already been through some of those pressures, as a Black male, a Native American male,” he said.

Forbes knows he’s not only a teacher to his students.

“I tell my teachers and colleagues all the time, 'We’re not teachers now. We are father figures, big brother, big sister, mother figure. We are nurturing these kids because sometimes they don’t get that at home.'”

As a student of color, having a teacher like Forbes has changed my life. I transferred to Decatur my sophomore year barely knowing anyone. Once I met Forbes, the transition became almost seamless. I struggled a lot my freshman year, and I often felt like I had no one to go to. Although I had good teachers, they didn’t feel as open to me.

“Man, I’ve gone through hell and back,” Forbes says. “Anything you tell me can’t be far off from what I’ve been through or seen. I wanna know how [my students] feel about things in their life. I wanna know what they’re going through so I can help them get through it.”

Forbes has taught me life lessons, and he has changed my whole mindset. I went from being late to school every day to waking up at 5 a.m. and getting shots up before school and waking up early on Saturday mornings to get into the weight room.

All audio for this story was collected following CDC safety guidelines during Covid-19.

This story was created in KUOW's RadioActive Online Radio Journalism Workshop for 15- to 18-year-olds, with production support from Kenju Waweru. Edited by Mary Heisey.

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Support for KUOW's RadioActive comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Center.

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