Jun 3, 2016

Teaching in the City: Lessons on Race

Apparently, I only blog at big moments in my life anymore.

I had intended to chronicle my year as a teacher in the City but to be honest I was exhausted every night -- emotionally and physically. I felt like I spent more of my day breaking up fights than actually teaching and honestly felt as though I was in survival mode since, oh, September. That's not why I went into teaching. I have NEVER hated my job. (Actually, that's a lie... I didn't much like the preschool I worked at before Strictly.) I have never dreaded going to work on a daily basis. Everyone kept saying, "One year in the city is worth two or three anywhere else." It better be...

I learned a lot about my teaching style this year. Things I need to do better in my next school and position... Different classroom management techniques, how to better implement guided reading and guided math. Those are all lessons first year teachers learn, right? I just hate that I learned them there, in a school where QUALITY is so desperately needed. I almost feel like my kids were my guinea pigs, and in the neighborhood where I taught, that was a huge disservice to them.

But what's most important that I learned is about race. Race is a BIG topic right now in St. Louis, and it has been ever since Michael Brown was shot (7 miles from my school). In a way, the discussion that has begun has been healing, but in many others it hasn't. It's honestly something that hasn't been touched on -- not in a real authentic way -- well, ever.

I don't believe it was a coincidence I worked at this school this year. At the beginning of the (school) year, I attended a racial equity forum with several of my colleagues as well as other teachers in similar schools. Being an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter (if you're my friend on Facebook ad haven't picked up on that, you haven't been paying attention) I had already begun to learn about how our systems play into racism and classism in our nation. This forum opened my eyes even further. We discussed how the concept of Race came about, as well as having times to speak openly and honestly about our experiences with racism. I realized there that race isn't spoken about in our region because if you're white and you talk about it, you're racist, and if you're black and you talk about it, you're playing the victim. It couldn't POSSIBLY be because you're wanting to fix things.

Anyway, we discussed things from the GI Bill not fully extending to black soldiers to housing regulations that led to white suburbs and "white flight." We discussed white privilege (yes, it exists, and if you're white shaking you're head and saying, "No it doesn't..." your privilege is showing) and wealth and a whole host of other things in the 2 days I was in attendance.

And you know what? The very kids I had signed on to teach were affected on a daily basis by laws and rules and attitudes that date back DECADES. I am ANGRY over it all. I'm trying not to get on my soapbox about it... I'll save that for another post. But let's just say, you should pay the $5 to rent Race: The Power of Illusion on Vimeo, and you should listen to this episode of This American Life which addresses the Normandy/Francis Howell transfer issue, and you should subscribe to We Live Here which focuses on the St. Louis area, and you should learn about the blatant segregation going on in our own city via the Delmar Divide. Truly eye-opening stuff.

Around January of this year, a small group of people at my church have become involved in racial reconciliation in our community -- tough to do since the very existence of our county is due in large part to white flight in the 90's and 00's. I brought a unique perspective to the group, working in the environment that I do, with the people I do (100% black school, 100% free/reduced lunch... I was one of 5 or 6 non-black teachers in my building). The whole process, combined with the racial equity forum, was convicting. You learn things about yourself in these circumstances You discover attitudes you didn't know you had and conditions of your heart that you didn't realize were there. It required a LOT of introspection and a lot of truth-telling on all of our parts. Some people couldn't handle the revelations they made of themselves. Others saw it and embraced it -- not in a loving and good way, but in an empowering I'm-going-to-change-my-thinking way. After all, you can't fix a problem until you admit you have it.

As for me? I grew up in North County. My grade school was fairly evenly split and one of my best friends in early elementary school was a black girl. I never considered myself a racist. Honestly, I'm not sure I do even now after all the discussion and dissection. But I did realize the attitudes I'd picked up from society. The expectations I had about my kids and about my role as a white teacher in a black school. I didn't want to go in there with a Messianic attitude, but I realize now that I did. Not because I believe the kids need ME to save them, but that they need someone to save them.

That's why we go into teaching, right? To nurture our kids. To show them that they are capable of ANYTHING they set their mind to. To be a constant source of goodness and kindness in their lives. That's the attitude I would have taken no matter where I taught, but in the City it was... magnified almost. And it was probably the biggest source of stress. I wanted so desperately to connect with my students. To show them that I was THERE. That I wasn't leaving, and that I believed in them. In truth, I think I managed that with about 4 students. Maybe I succeeded with more than that, but I'm not so sure... It wasn't obvious anyway. And for a while, most of the year in fact, I took it personally. I tried not to. I told myself I wasn't. But I did.

I was probably the first white person these kids came into contact with on a daily basis, I realized in about March. Their neighborhood is black, their church is probably black, their family is black... What they see on TV and might hear in their homes about white people is, no doubt, not always positive. ESPECIALLY in light of the spark that is Ferguson. While I never heard much -- if any -- anti-black rhetoric at my house growing up, I know there were white families that spoke ill against black ones. And I"m sure the opposite case is true. My kids were coming to school with preconceived notions of me, a white woman, and treating me differently than the black teachers because of it. Just like, subconsciously, I was probably treating them differently too. We all do it. It's... ingrained in us, I believe.

I'm determined to be one of the people who stops it. One who doesn't shy away form the issues, denying the existence of white privilege or feeling guilty for the benefits I was given just because I am white. Yes, the circumstances are far from ideal. But let's fix it. Talk about it. Get involved. Interact with people who don't look like you. Read about social issues that affect poor black neighborhoods through a lens that isn't colored with the attitude of "They can get themselves out if they truly wanted to" (because I PROMISE you, it's not that simple). TAKE A STAND. The reason nothing has changed is because NO ONE is willing to TALK ABOUT IT.

It won't be pretty. It might even be a little painful. But it's necessary if our region and our nation is ever going to heal from our racial wounds.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written, darling daughter! I share your views, but I haven't the courage you possess. I can't comment anymore without sounding like a proud mother, patting herself on the back for raising such an insightful woman.