Wednesday, March 21, 2007
a little perspective
I may have made mention of this before, but although the school where I teach may not lack for much, one area where there is a definite lack is in ethnic diversity. Due to our school-of-choice status and a heavy push to gain students from a nearby inner city area we are gaining more and more African American students every year, and the increase in diversity has also brought an unfortunate increase in racial tensions. In the past four days alone there have been two pretty brutal fights in the hallways, both between a black student and a white student, both initiated when the white student started throwing around racial slurs. The closest boys bathroom in proximity to my classroom has been locked due to the phrase "no n---ers here" being repeatedly written on the walls. In other words, while they may be careful of what they say in my classroom, it looks like a fair number of kids aren't being so careful when they aren't being supervised.

Some of my colleagues were discussing this at lunch today, and I brought up the diversity program that's recently been implemented in our district. We offer an entire class on it, in fact, however the class is only being offered to the advanced placement kids, most of who come from well educated homes and are pretty open minded already. In other words, the ones who don't really need it. Several of my fellow teachers basically told me that they felt it would be pointless to even try to educate our racist population on issues of diversity since their parents are most likely racists too, that they're too far gone at this point anyway, and it would be a waste of time and resources. In their defense I can honestly understand why they would think this way, but I wish they could have seen what happened in my classroom literally five minutes later.

After lunch I headed back to my classroom to listen to my 9th graders give speeches, the topic of which was someone who they felt was a hero. Up first was T. T is a school-of-choice student from the previously mentioned inner city school district. She lives with her grandmother because her mother abandoned her. She is sweet but desperately needs attention (wonder why?), is very loud, terribly scattered, and failed most of her classes last semester. I had read the research paper which her speech was based off of, and as a consequence I didn't really expect much from her speech. Shame on me.

T's speech was on Ruby Bridges, one of the first black students to be integrated into the previously segregated New Orleans public school system. (This is a topic her grandmother insisted she switch to by the way, after learning that she initially wanted to research Tupac Shakur.) T began her speech in her normal speaking pattern - scattered and goofy and with intermittent laughter at inappropriate places - but mid-way through a visible change came over her. She diverged slightly off topic and began talking about her previous school - how dangerous it was, how poor, and how most of the kids she knew there were only concerned with their gangs and staying out of jail. And then she started to cry. She paused, too overcome with emotion to talk, and I gave her the opportunity to stop if she wanted to. She refused, choosing instead to give the rest of her speech while sobbing. She spoke about how much better off she is here, how hard people like Ruby Bridges fought to give her the opportunity to be here in the first place, and how she's been wasting that gift by failing her classes. She spoke about how every student has the right to not only a good education, but to be educated in a place where they feel safe and loved.

Although it was hard to tear my eyes away from T, at one point I looked around at her all-white audience. For the most part, these are kids who come from homes ranging from pretty comfortable to downright wealthy, they have never had to go to a "bad" school, and they probably wouldn't consider themselves lucky to be receiving the education they are receiving. But at least for this one moment they were riveted, wide-eyed, and more than one was crying.When she finally ended her speech, the applause was thunderous and sincere.

As I was hugging T in the hallway after her speech, my shoulder soaked with her tears, I started to remember the conversation I had at lunch and found myself wishing that the rest of the building could have been in my classroom at that moment to hear what T had to say. I bet it would have made a difference.


Blogger Wife said...

Wow. You're right it would make a difference. We can all use a dose of reality - how good we really do have it. I'm glad that at least 30 kids got that today.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a powerful story. Thanks for sharing. M-I-L

Blogger Abs said...

This is the kind of thing that really makes me detest lawmakers who want to stop our kids from talking about stuff not directly related to their subjects in class. If they only knew how sometimes, just that little bit of extra time to talk about something helps kids think about it, penetrating below that surface stuff, and getting at what's really underneath those superficial beliefs and behaviors.
Thanks for giving your kids that chance not to just rehash, but to feel.

Blogger JMW said...

One of the many reasons I like your blog is because it seems like you're a really good teacher. Nice post.

Blogger cornshake said...

such a moving post. i bet T will never forget having you as a teacher.

Anonymous Kathy (Carrie's sister) said...

Maggie, I've been reading your blog for a while now, and I love your stories about teaching. This one especially struck me because in my district, we used to have a diversity committee that was working on programs K-12 to address the same types of issues you mention. But then we got new upper-level administration who disbanded the diversity committtee, along with all other committees that aren't "directly related to student achievement." I wish they would read this post and realize that there's more to education than just test scores.

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