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

-William H. Gass

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Eric Holder, Attorney General and also Mister Awesomely Right On (subtitle: how to kinda sorta talk about race in white suburbs)

I was worried for a minute there. I spent lots of time at my last job figuring out how to make a classroom talk about race in a safe, meaningful, real way. I stopped and processed every racially charged statement I heard (over many moans and groans). I didn't allow the n-word in my classroom (or its shortened "friendly" counterpart which ends in an "a" rather than an "er" and is just as much of a problem). My argument was that by using it amongst friends you are keeping the word in the lexicon of your enemies. Why not just eliminate it from the American vocabulary altogether? I did a lot of arguing, and listening. I didn't even know what the goal was, really, except to be able to bring it up in conversation when it came up, rather than avoid it (which is what I usually wanted to do, if you want the truth.)

Anyway, I was worried because I still think the hardest conversations to have are usually the most important and I wasn't sure how they were going to happen at my new school. At my last school, with statements like "I'm gonna put her Puerto Rican hood rat ass back where it belongs" floating around the hallways, there were plenty of opportunities to say..."Um...can we talk about what you just said?"

But rich white folks' kids don't usually say stuff like that. They do this:

Last week, in Literature class with the youngest students, we were reading a story. The story's narrator is born and raised in Harlem, and talks, thinks, and acts like a person few if any of these kids have ever met. He hangs out at a barber shop and has tense relations with the police and thinks 18,000 dollars is the most money he's ever even heard of, never mind actually possessed. After reading the story, I asked the kids to point out some things they noticed.

"They are in New York."
"They are weird."
"They talk weird."
"They are, well he is...you know, everyone in the story is Afr- Bl-"

This poor girl fell all over herself trying to figure out how to say that the characters in this story were black. She wanted to use whatever the most politically correct polite words she could, but she had a very hard time figuring out what those were.

As far as I am concerned, this kind of freaking out while trying to talk about a person whose skin color is different from your own warrants a conversation as desperately as shouting racial slurs in the hallway. This is the problem our amazingly awesome Attorney General was talking about last week. We can't get past this if we can't talk about it.

Of course, it's not always easy knowing what to say. So I said two things:

"Are you trying to say that the characters are black?"

She said that yes, she was trying to say that but "she felt bad."

So I asked her why she thought that made her feel bad.

She couldn't really figure that out. But that's okay, at least she started thinking about it. I also tried to get from the kid who said everyone was "weird" why he thought that, but he didn't really know what to say either.

I think maybe she felt bad because if we had been reading a story narrated by a white person we probably never would have said, "Well I noticed that the narrator is white." Because isn't that the norm that we measure against? When a Christian pro-life wacko shoots an abortion doctor, he isn't a Christian extremist, but when a Muslim shoots someone, what do you think he's called? When Sarah Palin talks to a crowd of all white hockey moms, she's just talkin' to regular Americans, but when Barack Obama talks to an all black church group in Chicago he's playing to a special interest, right?

All this to say, I'm no longer worried about having big, scary, important conversations at my new school. Like everyone else, these kids see the world from where they are standing. And like everyone else, it would probably do them some good to look at it from different shoes once and a while.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Plenty of we the graduates of master's programs in education have spent oodles of time picturing utopia: the school. We know what its teachers are like, what's on the walls, what the classes sound like, what the students feel like every day, and a million other things. I have spent time building this school in my mind in idle daydreams like many girls do their weddings. For two years, I have been trying to shape my school into this place. At every turn, I met resistance. In part, since I did have many victories, this made the job rather satisfying. In other ways, it made it exhausting. Exhausting in the way beating your head against a brick wall is exhausting - you bleed, the wall doesn't.

The students, though, I loved. I love things that are as tough as they are delicate. I don't think I'll ever meet a group of young people more resilient, who went through so much and still somehow figured out how to laugh and trust and learn.

This is why I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt, everyday, for taking my new job. It is an incredible place. So many parts of it are living models of my dreamed-up school. It's uncanny, at times. The art on the walls. The laughter in the classrooms. The passion of the staff. And, in so many other ways, it fulfills all of the selfish needs my other job did not. Money. Vacation. Health care. Better coffee. The list of perks, significant and otherwise, adds up to a situation marvelously sweeter than the last. But...but....

It's a private school. It is the exact racial and economic inverse of my last school.

Can this be utopia?! If a teacher wants to quit her night job, get decent benefits, and teach in a place where art and music aren't subjects of controversy but rather are central to the school itself...does she really, still, in 2009, have to teach only upper middle class white students?

I've been there one month. For the drama session, in which the entire school does nothing but put on a musical. For 2009: Camelot. I tell you, in spite of the magic of this place (and it is magical) neither side of segregation can be Camelot.