A team building game for a Black Virginia middle school student ended with him picking up cotton balls with his nose. The eighth grader and his mother are calling out the teacher and the school district for allowing the racially insensitive game to happen in the classroom.
“The teacher was not willing to accept the wrongness. She wasn’t willing to accept the insensitivity of the situation,” Keisha Kirkland said to WJLA.
Sidney Rousey is an eighth grader at Gunston Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. The teenager is the only Black student in his French class and on Feb. 6, a long-term substitute teacher pressed students in the class to participate in a team building activity.
According to the district spokesperson, “Using only their nose, the players were challenged to move the cotton balls one at a time from one end of the table to a bowl at the other end of the table. The object was to see who could move the most cotton balls,” Frank Bellavia explained. The Vaseline would allow more cotton balls to stick to a person’s nose during the game.
“We’re supposed to put Vaseline on our nose and pick cotton, and I remember she asked if there were any volunteers and everybody in the class looked at me in the class,” Rousey said.
“She was looking at me and was forcing me to get up there and play the game and I really didn’t want to, but I didn’t want to get in trouble by the teacher,” he continued.
The game made Rousey feel uneasy and later that day he reluctantly told his mom, Keisha Kirkland about it.
“He stumbled a couple of times trying to tell me, and I said just spit it out, tell me. Then he has this grin on his face, and I said just tell me,” Kirkland said to WRC.
Kirkland said she was stunned after learning what happened.
“My mouth dropped. I said, why are they playing a game like this, and why did you play? He said, I felt like I had to,” Kirkland said.
Rousey admitted he didn’t fully realize the full impact of what happened until hours after it happened.
“I knew a little bit about the cotton and Black people and at the time it was like, I knew about it but in the moment I didn’t know. Now that I realize it, it made me feel even worse that I played the game. I know this month is Black History Month and I felt like people really didn’t care about our history,” Rousey said.
His disheartened mother immediately brought the game to school officials’ attention. Once at the school, Kirkland spoke to a school counselor and confronted the teacher.
“I didn’t know whether to be hurt, upset, angry, mad. It was a whole bunch of feelings,” Kirkland said.
“[The teacher] just wasn’t accepting his feelings and how he was hurt. She just wanted me to know they were having a whole lot of fun,” Kirkland said.
The following day, Rousey told news outlets the unnamed substitute teacher confronted him in front of the class about his displeasure with the cotton ball game.
“She shut the door and she started attacking me saying ‘Am I racist?’” Rousey said.
“She asked him in front of the entire class, ‘Sidney, am I a racist?’” Kirkland added.
Arlington Public Schools did not immediately return Atlanta Black Star’s requests for comment, but the district told WJLA, “The activity, called ‘nose dive,’ was part of a list of optional team-building activities for 8th grade Gunston students to foster collaboration. Gunston administrators held a meeting with the student and parent to discuss their concerns and are investigating what occurred and how this activity was present to students by the staff member.”
The district went on to say it does not tolerate discrimination and claimed other students played the game.
On Feb. 7, the district then claimed, “the activity was not part of a division-wide approved list. Furthermore, APS does not support these activities and will promptly revisiting and reviewing them. The school will take necessary and appropriate actions to address this incident,” WJLA reports.
“I wish they would hear about my son as much as they’re trying to figure out where the game came from,” Kirkland added.
The school district sent WRC another statement commending Rousey for coming forward.
Since the incident, Rousey was taken out of the class and now takes the required course virtually in the library.
The Arlington NAACP has also demanded more answers from the school district.
“If this was an approved list then who’s looking at that list and who’s making sure things like cotton picking games doesn’t make its way into the classroom,” Arlington NAACP President Mike Hemminger said.
According to news reports, the school district won’t disclose if the unnamed teacher in question has been disciplined in any way citing it’s a personnel matter.
“There should have been some kind of accountability by now,” Arlington NAACP member Tia Alfred said.
“What I’m asking you to do is acknowledge that it doesn’t feel good in us and that’s what my son told me. It does not feel right. Hear him, those are his feelings,” Kirkland said about the district’s response so far.