with respect and gratitude for my students and my co-teacher Marcus Campbell
What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it–at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.
- James Baldwin
It is December, and I just finished reading this semester’s batch of students’ racial autobiographies. Another three hundred pages of traveling alongside young people as they revisit childhood friendships and separations and peel through layers of assumptions, reactions, and values.
In this teacher preparation class, I soak up the school memories and the questions about priorities that emerge when students have time to reflect. I see Jean, Ron, Molly, and the rest of my students, honoring what was in their hearts when they were small: who am I to you? who gets to say what is true? I listen to them mourning the child they were, who sat in classroom after classroom, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, without being known, without knowing themselves. I witness my Black student Terra’s genius in naming the feeling of being unwelcome in the moment that it’s impacting her, and confronting her white peers who yet again have pushed her away.
I am moved, frustrated, elated, angry, galvanized. Where do I go with all these feelings my students’ words have stirred in me?
Because as I read, reflect, write responses, I am experiencing a bit of what they experienced.
As a lifelong teacher, I have read millions of pages of young people’s stories, thoughts, wonderings, and worries. At a 9th grade retreat I sat in the back of the room with Devon as he entered high school, listening to his new classmates’ narratives of their struggles and joys. Devon affirmed each student with a short, shining rap that exuded respect. I read Marisol’s poem about caring for her father, drunk, abusive, and brilliant; she expressed in images of glass and wood how her 16 year-old life is thick with contradictions. Each student I taught has become part of me; I feel their spoken and written words, their journeys, their faces, etched into me at a cellular level.
My students have politicized me. My Asian-American student Leslie’s conversations and reading and reflection lead her to the conclusion that her education failed her: it withheld the tools to build a healthy vision of the future. In her racial autobiography, she notes that her schools could have helped her find and draw and compare maps for navigating the most important relationships in her life — but instead, the school structures and instruction funneled her attention to tests and grades. She is angry with herself for allowing herself to be duped. Over and over and over:
In school, all the classes were supposedly unbiased and fact-based, so there was no arguing against what was taught, since it was the “truth”. Confederates were the enemy, Martin Luther King was the leader of the whole civil rights movement, suffrage solved all problems, we were justified in fighting in Vietnam. As a scientist, facts are the end all be all, and to be told that my lessons were statements of past facts meant I never even thought to think critically about the history of the American people or the current state of our society. I wonder if that is the reason why I did not understand my personal identity as a person of color, but as the White identity I developed growing up. It strikes me as ironic that my high school – meant to be one of the best in the Capital Region — was one that initiated no discussion on diversity and identity, let alone social justice. A high school that in making history “uncolored” and “unbiased” (which in all honesty, can it ever be?), completely stripped its students of awareness and critical thinking.
As I follow Leslie’s analytical process, I’m angry, too. No, I’m enraged. I know from my own experience that self-blame will keep her in a cage of confusion, instead of identifying the system that has manufactured the lies and the silence, and targeting it, to break free.
In her racial autobiography, Terra demands that teachers take responsibility for our complicity with toxic hypocrisy: when we profess values we don’t enact, it’s worse than not teaching them. “Critical thinking” that lives only on paper, in limited contexts, sucks the life out of truth.
Terra connects the educational theory she read in our class to her own school experience:
My school was not known for individualism. It was known for scholarship and discipline. It was clearly known that people who worked there had power and authority over what we did, how we talked, what we wore, and when we were allowed to do things. It was a very clear power imbalance between teachers and students. It didn’t help that the teachers were white and 99% of the students were Black. When I think about my experience now, I get so angry because these white teachers who claimed to care about us so much didn’t care to remove this imbalance of power. I don’t think it’s unintentional that my white classmates say they loved to learn and were taught to question ideas and form their sense of self, and my school did not. Yet somehow, I became one of those roses that grew out of the crack, and so did many of my classmates. However, it seemed like my white teachers in high school did not know how to cater to students who defeated all odds; instead, it seemed like they wanted to stunt our growth by holding on to their power. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire acknowledged that some teachers have a “banking” concept of education where students receive, file, and store deposits of education, and they don’t develop critical consciousness or critically consider reality. This is the framework of my high school, which is probably why our teachers always complained that we needed to be critical thinkers in our papers, but did not implement it in the curriculum. That’s why most of us did not know how to do that.
I am struck by my students’ sense of betrayal. The people appointed to be their guides colluded in a cover-up that suffocated independent thought and real feeling. Their intentions were good, but the teachers did real harm when they refused to question the systems they were perpetuating. The vast majority of my students say their teachers helped to create a culture of competition, obedience, and worry. And disempowerment, as my Latino student Rudy points out:
My high school suffered from high [turnover] rates – as much as 25% of teachers every year. Every year, I was disappointed to return to my school only to find out some of my favorite new teachers had moved on to better-paying jobs farther out to the suburbs. It was devastating. It was a symptom of many problems my community faced, including lack of funding and, in my opinion, collective action. There’s no doubt students cared about the negligent care our schools received. But action was rare, for we merely brushed off our hopes due to what seemed like a system unlikely to ever change. Our teachers came and went, and we cherished those who stayed. I now question the intentionality of those who left quickly; were we just a careless step to launch your career? I think it’s important to realize that when a teacher enters a school, they’re also entering a community. They adopt a responsibility to work alongside the community, especially disenfranchised communities.
Rudy urges us to learn and share the skills of collective action that address the systematic disinvestment in African-American and Latino communities and the violent neglect of schools in low-income neighborhoods. The tools of change – becoming conscious individually and powerful collectively — are in the community, not outside of it. It can be scary for my students to question the authority they were educated to obey, but when they focus on following the leadership of people in marginalized communities, they learn resistance practices that strengthen and heal.
Teaching is not science or history; it is not writing; it is not the transactions of the classroom. It is a relationship. Rudy is calling for teachers to use their heads and their hearts, to take seriously the students before them. This means shaking up the lies and hypocrisy; it means challenging the silence around the history and perpetuation of white supremacy and learning how to create a counternarrative: “work alongside the community.”