"Things that interfere with writing well: Earning a living, especially by teaching."

-William H. Gass

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"what do you mean 'we?'"

Well it finally happened. It was the weirdest thing. I knew, eventually, this would happen. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I would react, how I would deal with it, whether it should be the type of thing one "reacted" to. But how could I not?

For the past two years, I have been the only white person in my classroom (except during staff meetings). We talk about race all the time in my class. And I've taken quite a few light-hearted jokes directed at white people, which thus far have been part of a healthy conversation. I have been very careful in my pursuit of a space in which talking about race is safe, appropriate, and expected. I never purport to know what I'm doing in this regard, and my students are always very helpful when it comes to telling me what to do.

This month, I welcomed a new student into my class. He is

The. White. Kid.

in the inner city alternative school.

And all the shit I was afraid to deal with has already started to happen. Case in point:

We're studying the American Revolution. One of my personal favorite things to teach. It is a sensitive subject, what with the tendency of old lame-ass text books to glorify the brave colonists and paint them as champions of liberty who fought for their freedom and secured us all a Great American Future. Fortunately, my school can't afford text books so it's up to me to put together my own photocopied collections of readings.

All this being beyond the point. The point is, we were having a conversation, as a class, regarding why the English, rather than the Spanish or the French, ended up putting the "winning" group of colonizers on North America. This usually sparks a conversation regarding why it is ANY European colonizing bastard felt he had the right to be there in the first place.

But here's what happened. The new kid says, "We had more independence from our crown in the first place, so it was easier for us to break away and really make the new colony our own."

And I, without thinking, engage this conversation, the entire time using the pronoun "we."

And after three minutes of engaging this kid in conversation I look around, and I had lost everyone else. So I try to back up.

"Let me just check in here, what do WE mean when we say 'we?'"

And one kid pipes up and says, rather pointedly, "Yeah, what DO you mean we?"

What did I mean? Am I the teacher I read about in all those articles in grad school? The one who, regardless of all her efforts, engaged the student of her own race in conversation more readily than those of a different race? The one who used words carelessly without considering the points of view of all her students?

All of this, of course, calls into question all the work I've done so far. Did I really create a safe space for tough conversations...or did I create a precariously safe space that's easily thrown by a change in group dynamics?

Jeez. Teaching is hard. They should pay us more. Goodnight.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Baby Bling

I read an article a while back about wealthy suburban couples competing with their wealthy suburban friends through a new wildly popular status symbol. Not huge cars, not elaborate vacations. Babies. Lots and lots of babies. Apparently (and one need not look further than the latest Pitt-Jolie headline in the checkout line mags) babies are the new bling.

Needless to say, this is distressing on several levels. Firstly, even to a heartless wench like me, using children to prove to one's friends (or the media) that one is a superstar with immense wealth seems an unjust use of children. Secondly, and more distressing, it's hard not to think of the wee little planet on which we pile all these grubby little water drinking plastic dependent cherubs. Do we really want to make it "cool" to have gigantic families?

I can say this: it's cool in school. There hasn't been a single month, in the entire time that I have been teaching, that hasn't brought news of at least one more pregnant student. Many of them have children already. And the news is always greeted with "awwws" from the other students, who rush over to the latest big belly and rub it, give the mom to be lots of attention, and totally freak me the fuck out.

How do we compete with cool?!

Our school has counselors on staff, and we all sit down once a week to chat about the students' states of mind, hash out strategies to deal with difficult situations, and, inevitably, lament the list of newly pregnant teenagers.

These girls, for all their lives, have been under mountains of shit beyond my ability to imagine. Abuse, homelessness, crumbling, segregated, violent schools, gang violence, hunger, lack of health care...not exactly the recipe for self-love and self-respect. So when they get the chance to be loved and needed, they take it. When they get the chance to be in control of something, they take it. And in so doing, they become part of a rapidly expanding group of their peers, and are accepted. This is just as damaging to young girls' futures as gangs are to boys' - and both behaviors are unfortunate responses to the same set of shitty realities.

I recognize that the lack of mandated, funded, comprehensive sex education in public schools is partly at fault for the rising number of teen parents. But this isn't just a sex education crisis. It's a self-esteem crisis. Hopelessness crisis.

I assure you, the last possible thing we need is for this to become cooler than it already is.

...I've sat here staring at a blinking cursor for quite a while now. I have no answers. I have no clue what to do. I'm throwing my hands up in the air, in the middle of a crisis, and saying: "What. The. Fuck."