In the quiet heat of middle July, I’m aware that school is seeping into my periphery. To be honest, I’ve spent a couple of hours already in planning and really enjoyed the reverie and rhythm. Also true is that I genuinely miss the young humans with whom I am at school to serve. But as I begin to step onto this path, my heart quickens and an inescapable pounding begins in my skull. Dread. It’s real. And important to tend.
For me the dread is no longer the chaotic classroom (which I don’t enjoy but at least no longer fear). I’ve learned to sit and count the time as I wait my turn to speak, I’ve learned to harness the bag of teacher tricks and looks, most importantly I’ve learned to have classroom meetings and allow the students to have at least some modicum of ownership and control. And the truth is that a mass of hormonally charged youth in a math classroom is gonna be a bit of ride. It just is. And I’m (generally speaking) ok with that part.
The dread is the community pool. It is the relationships with peers that I can neither understand nor navigate. It is the nice pleasantries that mask queer-antagonism and racial hostility. For an entire school year our building’s emphasis was “relationships”, but never once was it ok to be gay. I decided to be out (wedding picture on my desk kind of out) and it was a hot topic amongst the kids and taboo with the adults.
But the gay thing is really not the hardest part for me. It’s actually easy compared with the other. The hardest part is the racial hostility that bubbles below the surface (and occasionally above) in a school where more than half of the teachers are white and 99% of the students are Black (the vast majority also living in poverty). It is the assumption that “these kids” are somehow different (read: less). It manifests in teachers offering little to no substantive effort at all because, well, “they won’t listen anyway”. In a school where >30% of the teachers are newbies, every one of us should be in over our heads with lesson planning in an attempt to meet student’s educational needs. Racism is the undercurrent when young white teachers announce that it is either not their job or not worth their time to invest in planning rich activities for “these kids”.
I know that my job is to stay in my lane. The challenge is that for part of every day I am placed in classrooms with other teachers, and I am daily witness. I see the students’ faces. I hear their frustration. In one situation I was able to offer some remedy, in another not so much; but in both I ended up feeling totally overwhelmed, deeply troubled, and aware that I was perceived as a bitch for challenging. Meanwhile the (Black) administrators were working overtime to reassure, placate, and (no joke) coddle the nice white teachers who couldn’t be bothered. My role as the resident bitch who names this bullshit is secure. Seriously, if you want to be a lazy teacher, go to a school where the children look like you and speak your language. Cross cultural teaching requires MORE (not less) effort.
Bottom line (as you can clearly see) I struggle to navigate collegial relationships in this racially charged environment. The good news is that it isn’t my job. In the parlance of the tables, other people’s opinion of me is none of my business. As Christopher Emdin (#ForWhiteFolksWhoTeachInTheHood) points out:
I need to do more walking away. Eating lunch alone is not the worst choice. An even better choice would be to be out about my love for the students and their families and the community in which we live and work. I can celebrate that though I, like all of the other white women, drive a distance to work, the neighborhood in which I am privileged (and choose) to live looks a lot like the one in which I work. Without the rose colored glasses of a visitor, I am coming to know the cadence, celebrate the beauty, and honor the struggle of life in communities denied white privilege. And racism becomes more personal; my friends, my family, my trusted circle are the ones that are whispered about in staff lounges. I am committed to rooting out my own racism and I won’t tolerate yours; there are children’s lives in the balance. So call me a bitch, but I’m gonna insist that we look into the eyes of these children and honor them. Or get out of the way.
We got brilliance to attend.
We got magic to celebrate.
We got children that deserve our best.
Holding Emdin and the sweet little boys next door and my niece and nephew close to my heart, I think I found a place to rise above. The righteous anger isn’t resolved, but it can’t be my focus. Eyes on the prize, teaching is about honoring the souls of the young ones gathered.
We got this.
(ps: this post is perhaps less hopeful, but hopefully more honest. this journey is not as linear as one might hope.)