I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I have learned some things from my sad obsession with Mad Men. Don Draper—the man with whom I have a hate > love relationship—says that if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.
A debate about the effectiveness of Teach For America has recently caught my attention as I trek through the final months of the first year of my own experience as member of this organization.
It’s not that I don’t like what’s being said about Teach For America. Frankly, I have some bones to pick with the organization, too. But rather, my problem is that—as usual—we’re not talking about anything that matters.
We have a problem in this country where we like to avoid looking at root causes of things we don’t like. We like Band-Aids, not solutions. Teach For America is one such Band-Aid. And instead of talking about the bigger, harder, more complex issue of how public education is a fraud and a failure, we like to focus on the littler, simpler things in life: organizations or policies that are making grandiose attempts to address the symptoms.
That last word there is the key: symptoms. Needing TFA corps members is a symptom. Low teacher retention rates are a symptom. The real facts and statistics surrounding education in poor and rural areas are symptoms of a much larger, systemic disease in our public education system. Anything that aims to resolve these symptoms is not a panacea. TFA does not claim to be a panacea. If anything, it’s just like DayQuil. It’ll relieve some symptoms if they’re not too bad, but TFA will never solve the “education problem” that plagues our nation.
But TFA does understand one thing that many policymakers fail to recognize admit: the education system has failed in large part because of what structures are in place to preserve the status quo.
We don’t need to talk about the medicines that different organizations prescribe to the education problem. We need to talk about why there is an education problem—the real heart of the reason.
In other words, the conversation needs to change. We need to think more radically because the traditional way of educating has proven to be inept. We need to talk about what we’re teaching, why we’re teaching it, how we’re teaching it, and if we should be teaching the same thing in every institution. We need to refrain from accepting “norms” and ask questions that we’ve been too complacent to ask.
This education system is the very thing that has taught us complacency. We’re taught to nod our heads and write what’s on the board. That’s the “traditional” method of educating. But to put it in “laymen’s” terms, this method sucks. Why do we continue to work with a system that’s been failing the people? When will we demand empowerment by working against a system that represses us?
The conversation needs to change.
Much more on this to come…
No amount of college could prepare a person for a job like teaching. It’s much like becoming a surgical intern (yes, I watch Grey’s Anatomy when my mind has been fried by a day of teaching—which happens to be every day). You are plopped into the middle of things having read all the articles you could stuff your brain with but left without a clue about how to do what you need to do every day to be the best for your patients—your kids.
I am tired like I’ve never been tired before.
This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It can also be the most devastating and the most rewarding—all in one day, which makes it all the more exhausting.
In one day absolutely every possible thing can go so wrong that you have to do everything you can to keep from exploding into a weeping frenzy. And yet one student—that toughest student you have—can give you a look that let’s you know she’s letting you in, and it can make the whole day—that whole rotten day—magical.
It took me weeks to learn how to sleep. And I don’t mean stop working and get in bed. I mean, it took me weeks to learn how to shut my mind off when I hit that pillow so that I could actually sleep and recharge for tomorrow’s 16-plus hour day. I would drift into the thinnest layer of sleep—the kind of sleep in which you aren’t dreaming, you’re thinking concretely about things you need to do in a dreamlike manner.
I would wake up exhausted and use coffee as a surrogate for sleep.
College spoiled me. Even during the busiest of weeks, when I would look at my agenda and want to run away, I still had time to eat and even time to write in an agenda. Those were the days… the days I actually had time to plan the millions of things I needed to do.
The first month and a half of teaching and I’ve become gaunt because I don’t even have time to remember to eat—or my mind is too occupied with something that seems much more necessary than taking care of myself.
The stress of being the caretaker of 120 lives each day is overwhelming. It sounds melodramatic. But the reality is that the stakes are higher for my kids. Their time with me is critical. They are behind because of America’s failure to uphold the things it claims to value. They’re about to leave for high school—a high school that has been deemed a “dropout factory.” And I only have 9 measly months to plant in them the habits and mindsets they need to be successful when they’re thrown to the wolves. And on top of that, they need the actual skills to fight them off—alone, without support.
I recently drove by a yoga place on Brookside with a sign that says “Do something every day that scares you.” I almost chuckled to myself because every morning when I wake up, I get a strange tinge of fear that springs up from the pit of my stomach and seizes my heart. It lasts a mere moment, but in that moment I am terrified of the day that lies ahead.
What if I mess up? What if they don’t do what I need them to do today? What if they say something I don’t know how to react to? What if they need too much from me?
But then I walk through the doorway of my classroom. I unlock the door, push it to prop it open and read the words I’ve posted on it: “When you step into this classroom, you are global citizens. You are scholars. You are explorers. You are important. You are respected. You’re loved. You are the reason I am here.” And I feel recharged—regardless of the amount of sleep I did not get or the amount of coffee that didn’t work to wake me up. It is 6:15 a.m. and I am ready for the day and the chance to be for my kids—the kids that in such a short time I have learned to adore—the exact thing that they need.
About 90 percent of them, at the corner of everything they turn in to me, write: “I am smart. I am capable. I am important.” They don’t whine about it anymore. I don’t even have to remind them to do it. Every time I get the chance, though, I remind them individually that those words apply to them whether they believe it or not.
They’re starting to believe it.
I can feel it in the atmosphere of my classroom. Some days there are hints of joy in the air. When I bend down at the desk of even my most difficult children, and I tell them how smart they are, how capable they are, how much they mean to me, I can see it in their eyes that they’re starting to believe me. Even the skeptical ones. Even the ones that have been hardened by a life much too heavy for their age.
I can feel the joy in the way my students stand close to me when I’m monitoring the hallways during passing period. The way they ask to eat lunch with me in my room every single day. The way the girls play with my hair. The way the boys put their hearts on their sleeves for just me to see.
Bonds are forming in between the walls of our tiny classroom. Some of them slower than others, but they are surely forming. And no matter how exhausted I am when I leave that classroom each day, I can lie on my bed, mindlessly watching Grey’s Anatomy, knowing that all the energy I’ve spent is for the best cause—and the best humans—in the world.
These kids—every single one of them—they’re my heart. They’re the reason I get up every morning at the crack of dawn. They’re the reason I can wake up without hesitation at 5:15 a.m. and work until 9:30 p.m.
Learning is happening in my classroom. This month, I can feel it. But even more important than that, love is happening in my classroom. And that’s the thing that’s making all the difference. Students that refused to pick up a pen are writing full paragraphs now. I don’t have them all yet, but I’m working—relentlessly—to make sure that I have them all in time.
It’s an arduous process. Some days, I come home and cry for no other reason than because I am overwhelmed. Some days, I can’t stop talking to whoever will listen about the breakthroughs I’ve had. Some days—most days—by the end of it, I’m a zombie.
But every day gets better. And my kids give me so much hope.
It’s no wonder that teaching has one of the highest turnover rates of any profession in the country. I thought my time in college was rigorous while I pursued three majors. But what we call Institute at Teach For America—where we learn how to be a teacher in five weeks and teach summer school to kids in Tulsa Public Schools—college did not prepare me for. It seems like an impossible feat to keep up with all that is necessary to be an excellent teacher.
This is hard. This is one of the hardest thing of this academic nature that I have ever done. And this is coming from someone who would rather do homework than go out on a Friday night (I’m one of those). This is coming from someone who has been obsessed about school since the first time I stepped a foot into pre-K at two years old.
It’s hard because you don’t just get a B for falling short of excellent. Mind you, a B was always the end of the world to me back in the day. No, here, if you’re not excellent you’re failing a kid—a child with a real LIFE. You’re failing to give her what she needs to be successful, to be able to reach those big dreams she has of becoming a famous writer, a doctor, a teacher, an engineer. Our kids have those dreams. If we fail them here, we become a barrier for them to get to those dreams.
If we fail these kids now, during summer school—even in this short span of time we’re together—we potentially fail them for the rest of their lives. Because once José and Ashley and Yesmia and Brandon leave me, they’ll be inserted back to the system. And who knows what will happen to those precious children then.
Systemic racism and classism will throw punches at them as often as they have a chance to look up and see where they’re going.
So this is hard. There are deadlines to meet, skills to master in a short amount of time, knowledge to internalize all day, every day. There’s no test or quiz at the end. There’s just the classroom. We are no longer independent college students—because everything we’re doing and learning we don’t have a foundation for. It’s all fresh and it’s all new.
It’s hard, but it’s hard because I’ve hardly ever had to really work to understand something. I’ve never had to put so much thought into what I’m doing for it to come out right. It’s hard, most of all, because the stakes are lives and not grades anymore. A teacher’s work is more serious than brain surgery. We’re molding the future. And we can’t redo what we’ve done once it’s done.
It’s hard. But there are students in my class who go through this kind of challenge—on top of so many others, like poverty, racism and the threat of their parent’s deportation—every day they step into my class, or anyone’s for that matter.
Some of them are reading at a first grade level when they should be going into seventh grade next August.
Miguel* is a student in my class with the sweetest face I have ever seen, who stares at his in class assignments when I pass them out. That’s all he can do. He doesn’t raise his hand—it’s embarrassing for him. He just stares down with a furrowed brow and looks up at me as I make my way past each table of children, like he’s trying to tell me something sad and secret.
I look down at his paper every time to find no a single mark, though all the other children have at least tried to write down something. I kneel down beside Miguel and he looks at me, begging for help because I can see it in his eyes that nothing on that page makes sense.
So I read the directions to him in a whisper. Sometimes they make sense to him, but sometimes they don’t, and I have to reword the question so that he can better understand what its asking. Still his answers are simple sentences because he can’t write. Every word he needs help spelling. While the other kids are writing multiple sentences on their own, Miguel gets through one or two with my help.
If he comes to class every day, the state will push Miguel along to the seventh grade despite the fact that he is basically illiterate. If at every level he is so far behind his peers, will he stay in high school? Will he get too frustrated with himself to push through? Will he slip through the cracks of a big school serving too many kids just like Miguel—kids that don’t have the opportunities to work the system in their favor the way white middle class families can?
Miguel will not leave my class—no matter how hard I work and how hard he works—having grown six grade levels. That would be an impossible task for this short four weeks and this brand new teacher. But I’ve fallen in love with little Miguel in five short days, and he wakes me up in the morning and keeps me up at night planning, planning, planning how to make him learn quickly and effectively.
Still, he’ll leave me soon and I won’t know what the system will do to him—or not do to him.
While I have him and all the other beautiful children in my class, I’ll wage a brutal battle against the system that has held them back. I fight for them because they need to know that someone will. They need to know that they deserve a teacher that loves them and takes their lives and their futures seriously. They need someone to show them their potential and love them enough to push them to fulfill it.
They need someone who will give them a path to their big goals. They still believe they can reach them, and they should always believe that.
We were asked by Teach For America as corps members to write a short "Story of Self," which illustrates a moment in our lives that challenged us and yet showed us who we really are. This is mine.
We drove thirty hours in a broken down Suburban—a family of six piled in. I was fifteen and terrible, the rude product of too many years growing up in the invisible smog of White Privilege. For most of my life, I’d gone to private schools for the rich, despite the fact that we were really quite poor.
I had a paradoxical identity. I was the daughter of a white immigrant from Jamaica, who got knocked up at the age of 18 and had me. We grew up together, living above our means entirely, and feeling the strain of a low income frequently. After eloping and remaining married for a whopping month and having another daughter, my mother married a Mexican man seven years her junior and accidently had two more girls. Jaded and overprotective, I abhorred this new husband, associating his culture and his race with him and lumping them all into the same hate bundle.
He and his family were different, and I didn’t like it. Life at home was miserable for me, so I estranged myself from my family and clung to my private school friends whose wealth and privilege abounded. It was, at least superficially, a lot greener on their side. I became an elitist without the official certificate—I didn’t have the bank account to back it up, but I still believed profoundly that I was special by affiliation and (without explicitly admitting it) race.
Needless to say, my admittance to Mexico was coupled with a jarring culture shock like I’d never experienced before. As soon as we crossed the border, it was as though I’d been transplanted to another world. The disarray was overwhelming. Men latched onto our cars, asking for money in exchange for directions or assistance. People scrambled about outside, speaking loud Spanish and dragging little children by the arms. The cars were shoddy old things, blaring horns seeming to be their only fully functioning part. A mixed smell of manure, fried foods and thick pollution struck me as we drove through the cities.
I remember the Mexican flag—the biggest flag I’d ever seen. I looked up, out the window, behind the glass that kept me sealed from that world. I got the message loud and clear, but I didn’t understand it. This country—these people—had pride.
For the first part of our stay there, I could not figure out why.
Our trip was meant to be just two weeks. By some act of fate, however, the car problems we’d had on the way down ended up prolonging our stay to almost a month. It was in that month, without even realizing it as it happened, that reality slapped me out of delusion. And despite popular belief, the reality was a whole lot better than the sealed bubbled I’d been living in.
Trash littered the streets, the smells of fried food permeated the air, the pollution was thick, graffiti covered the walls of every building, the people were loud, the food was strange, the Spanish was incomprehensible, the buildings were dilapidated, hungry stray dogs roamed the roads, the bugs were rampant. I had never been outside of the manicured suburbia of America, and Mexico was diametrically different from everything I knew.
I wondered on an hourly basis during my first weeks in Mexico how anyone could live this way. It was like the chorus to my lamenting song about how much I despised everything Mexican.
In time, though, I became too distracted to notice the hum of that sad song in my mind. Something was happening to me as I was coaxed by time to take off my shoes and hang up my jacket and stay awhile. Get comfortable. Sit down. Have some tortillas and homemade salsa. Play soccer in the streets with the little boys in the neighborhood. Make friends with my cousin’s friends, taking pictures at the sites we visited. Fall in love with the precious little boys and girls that lived nearby. Succumb to the cheek-kissing and the hugging at every greeting and goodbye. Dance to the traditional music with the uncle that asks at every nightly gathering. Enjoy the fresh taquitos made by the old woman at a stand on the roadside in the mountains. Stand and look out at the splendorous pyramids made by the ancient peoples of this beautiful country.
The invitation was there every day, and without meaning to, I took it. And in the meantime, I fell deeply in love.
Though my initial journal entries don’t show it, a transformation was taking place in me after every day spent with the Mexican people of my stepfather’s family and friends. There was something authentic about them that I’d seemed to have forgotten could be a trait of humanity. They were not polished and plastic the way Americans were. They were people filled and colored by a rich cultural heritage that centered on family and community. Their hospitality and genuine kindness were warm and filling.
As I let myself become fully immersed in their world and their culture, my perception of them was renewed: they were not strange “others” anymore; rather, they became humans that I could value and appreciate and, most of all, love.
The journal in which I wrote during my stay in Mexico is filled with (sad and yet comedic) rants about how much I hated it and dreaded being there. But my last entry—written on the drive back home—reveals what a transformative experience that adventure was:
“I really wanted to go home—I really and truly did. But when the entire family lined up outside those two bright pink and bright green houses, it took too much effort not to let that ball in my throat get the best of me. God, I hate Mexico. But I’ve found that I can’t really hate Mexico if I love the people who make it up.
For all the times I hated this place, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy coming here. Some truly beautiful people live here. They don’t have to have the fancy, beautiful, expensive house. They don’t have to have the perfect looks. They don’t have to have anything but their friends and their family and the love that binds them and allows them to be truly, sincerely and genuinely happy, comfortable and content. They are family, they are together, they are love—to the realest extent.
I sit with my back to the seat that is supposed to be in front of me so I can watch it all pass by me. I can’t stop myself from crying. The horizon is empty without the mountains that seemed to play the role of a pair of giant arms, bringing everyone as a community, as a city, as a state, as a Family together as one.
I miss being there every day surrounded by that family. I miss the food, the homes, the constant warmth. I love Mexicans and look down upon myself for ever being prejudiced against them. I can call myself, shamefully, a hypocrite. Stupid, prejudiced people are my greatest pet-peeve, and yet I was just that. I don’t like who I am sometimes. There’s a person in me who is close-minded, but I swear I’ll send an army in to throw her out. I could be so much more than I am right now.”
That was the day I decided to wake up. Since that time, my world has been enriched because I have become fascinated by and appreciative of the cultures of people of color. I went to college and studied the world as one of my majors. I studied abroad in South Africa and Israel and Palestine and listened to the stories of the beautiful people that comprise those places. I developed a mission while in college to do everything I can to ensure that those narratives are not silenced by mainstream Western culture. Being a Teach For America corps member is my first step in a career dedicated to making sure that all people are perceived as and treated like the invaluable humans that they are.
If we’re going to discuss education, we cannot leave out the family. Students are children first, which means they aren’t born in a classroom, they’re born into families. The family forms the first environment in which a young child develops.
One of my dearly beloved professors and I have wonderful debates on a weekly basis about social justice and education—because I make him have these debates with me, and he kindly obliges (probably secretly rolling his eyes when I walk through the door).
In my last post
, I discussed the issue of teacher quality and the lack of strategies established at the state and federal level to consistently recruit, teach and develop excellent educators. But my professor decided to rail me in our discussion, insisting that, essentially, teachers are only half the story. Parents, he fervently asserted, parents are part of, if not the root of, the reason for students’ lack of achievement. While there is no doubt evidence that family environments have a crucial impact on a child’s cognitive and non-cognitive development
, I think a concerted and genuine effort to bridge the gap between parents and educators can help to mitigate the challenges that parents and children from lower-income communities face.
This requires incorporating social justice classes into teacher education, first and foremost.
What often happens among white, middle class teachers is the otherization of parents from lower classes. This kind of otherization is, I believe, the result of a grave misunderstanding—a misunderstanding that is rooted in the fallacious meritocratic theory of success. When teachers harbor this kind of misconception of the “other,” i.e. parents from lower classes, they not only marginalize those parents further but they also maintain an ideology within the classroom that marginalizes those parents’ children. There is a serious and detrimental lack of cultural synchronization between teacher and child, and teacher and parent.
Too often parents are dismissed as negligent or are perceived as not caring about their child’s success. This kind of assertion teems with misunderstanding and prejudice.
For parents from the working class, caring about their child’s academic success—whether they’re doing well on tests, turning in their homeworking, behaving in class as the teacher demands, learning the essentials—is often not feasible
in the way many educators would like. Not all parents have the time to check their child’s homework, study with their children for their tests, or give them a quiet room in which they can do their work. Many of these parents work multiple jobs, work the night shift, and/or just don’t have the resources.
Furthermore, too many parents—especially those that come from lower-income communities—don’t understand the inherent value of school because they didn’t experience
it. Many parents’ aspirations for their children are to land a job out of high school so they can contribute to the family income. Too many parents have been jaded by the system that has oppressed them—a system that is so ingrained into the fabric of American life that they don’t even think to fight it.
The issue is so much bigger than just parents. I would venture to say that a tiny fraction of parents actually
don’t care about their children. The majority just doesn’t have the time, the resources, or the hope that education will be their ticket out of poverty. The bigger issue—and the issue that future and current teachers alike absolutely must understand—is that our country and the institutional and social structures that comprise it are riddled with racism and classism, which ensures that people of color and the poor are locked out of middle class privileges.
If our teachers learn only pedagogical methods in school and fail to learn and comprehend the social workings of this country (which seems like the very thing a school in conservative Oklahoma would leave out) then they are only half qualified (if even) for the profession.
We cannot blame the oppressed for their own oppression.
The students that stood on that stage in front of the rest of the graduating class, indeed, would be top students during their four-year college careers. We were the ones that would go on to become doctors, engineers, architects, educators, law school students, and dentists, to name a few. Our schooling experience had been specifically designed to put us ahead of everyone else. It had set us up to be leaders and to be far more successful than the average student.
For the fractional top percent of students in high schools around the country, the tracking system can be a saving grace. But, meanwhile, the vast majority of students that are not on the highest academic track are being denied critical educational opportunities. They are asked to meet a standard that falls far short of excellence.
This is not to say that students on lower academic tracks cannot succeed academically in college or in their careers. They absolutely can—and do. But these are exceptional cases. The question is this: Why do we let some faceless bureaucratic institution decide which children are worthy of high investment and which ones are not?
Think like a parent: You have a child that you love and adore with all your heart. He is, after all, a part of you. You have placed him in what you know to be a good public school just outside your neighborhood. You know that your Johnny is a smart, smart boy. He asks questions, he is articulate, and he always says he wants to be a pilot (Johnny has an obsession with airplanes). But Johnny has real difficulty sitting still and focusing on one task, let alone taking long, standardized tests. He also gets into trouble in class pretty often because he’s a talker. He’s probably not the best reader, you know that, but you also know he’s smart enough to become
an excellent reader. His best subject is math, but because he’s not great at taking long tests, he often scores poorly on his math tests. But you know
he understands the material. He just needs practice with his work ethic and focus.
When presented with the option of whether you’d like to place your son on the lower or higher academic track, what do you choose? Do you choose to lower the standards so that he does well with ease? Or do you choose to raise the standards so that he is challenged and forced to learn more?
Unfortunately, it isn’t your choice. And most likely, Johnny will be placed on a lower academic track. For those persistent parents that do know how the system works, there may be a chance that they have more of a say. But ultimately the decision that will dictate your child’s future is made by that faceless bureaucratic institution. The fact of the matter is that “there is overwhelming research evidence that tracking students by ability has no educational benefit for students and in fact is deleterious to academic achievement, extracurricular participation, self-concept, peer relationships, career aspirations and motivation”
(Black Students and School Failure
, Irvine, p. 10
Despite all the evidence against its benefit, tracking still functions as a means of differentiating education in our public schools. There is no doubt, and empirical evidence proves, that all people are endowed with different strengths and weaknesses. The tracking system, however, does not differentiate on this basis. If this were the case, schools would group students by these strengths and weaknesses so that they were in classes that catered to them.
Instead of differentiating the means and methods of educating students based on their strengths and weaknesses, schools differentiate based on the standards applied to those students. The end result is that the graduating class comprises students on the stage, who are starting college with a college-level educational background; and students on the floor, who barely made it through high school or just breezed by, and lack critical skills they’ll need if
they even go to college. And that’s not to mention those students—about 100 out of my initial class of around 800—that drop out entirely and never graduate.
I can’t help but think that our education system in America is built to perpetuate and worsen the widening gap between rich and poor, white and people of color.
This is the reality—that the increasing achievement gaps in education reflect the growing disparity in our nation as a whole. The statistics, the data, the evidence are all there, but absolutely nothing that addresses the root of the issue is being done.
I’m convinced there is a lack of action for a reason.
When my family came to the United States, they endured the struggles of immigrants who’d left everything behind on their island home. But they left as upper middle class white Jamaican Anglophiles and arrived, fairly well-received, as middle class whites with strange accents but similar cultural nuances. Assimilation was not exceptionally difficult. America was certainly a far cry from the slow and steady pace of island life, but they still enjoyed certain middle-class luxuries.
My mother was raised in this context. Both her parents worked—one as a teacher the other as an airplane auditor. They had a nice home in Denver, Colorado. They weren’t rich but certainly not poor. Just average, middle-class people.
They moved to Oklahoma when my mother was a teenager, and she became pregnant at the age of 18. It was only then that their middle-class life was rocked by the crises that lower-income families face regularly. My mother experienced a setback—a teen mom with no education above a high school diploma, she would seemingly be relegated to menial jobs.
A great majority of people in this country would say that racism is abhorrent. But what most people don’t understand is that racism is more than just overt prejudice against people of color. Certainly, we can all agree that facial racism unfortunately does still exist, just as it did in the past.
But there is an even more dangerous aspect of racism that is easy to ignore if you don’t know how to see
it. It’s a kind of racism that remains hidden because it is so deeply embedded into the system and into American ideology.
There is a distinction to be made between prejudice and racism. The semantics are important because word meanings translate into ways of thinking and perceiving. I subscribe to David Wellman’s definition of racism as a “system of advantage based on race.” This definition implies that it is not necessary to “embrace overtly prejudicial thinking” in order to be part of the racist system.
The system incorporates “cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as beliefs and actions of individuals” that place people of color at a disadvantage, writes Beverly Tatum in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
This system has produced and maintained “White Privilege.” As white men and women we benefit from a racist system. Without doubt, we do not benefit equally—there are too many other “isms” at play: sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. Nonetheless, we are beneficiaries whether we know it or not.
What is most striking about systemic racism is that the consequences are particularly dire. Poverty rates for people of color, specifically black and Hispanic people, are more than twice that of white people in America. “In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared to 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians.
Welfare programs, affirmative action policies and the War on Drugs have done little—if anything at all—to get at the root of the issue. They instead slap a Band-Aid onto the problem, hoping that covering it up will solve it. In reality, the primary source of the poverty trap lies within public schools and the public school system, which fail to provide children of color and children from low-income families the skills and attention they need to succeed.
Instead, schools promote the maintenance of the status quo, which belies the tenets of the American Dream touted by citizens and immigrants alike. The American Dream is about social mobility, and it relies on the premise that we live in a meritocracy. For many this might be at least partially true. For instance, for me, it has been. My mother raised me as a struggling single parent for much of my life, but I’ve been able to work hard, get good scholarships, go to college and graduate with three majors and with highest honors. Even so, my hard work has only done part of it for me. I have also enjoyed white, heterosexual privilege. But the reality for too many other people is that hard work and good decisions are often not enough to realize that great American Dream.
that social mobility is a possibility for all is nice. However, it is only an idea right now.
Realizing this is the first step to making it a reality. But we have a long, long way to go.
I feel like I’m getting a quick minor in social justice this semester as I do my pre-work for Teach for America. I have been inundated with information, anecdotes and statistics about poverty and racism in this country. Everything I’ve read has watered the seeds of justice in me enough to force them to crack open the shells and sprout buds. I have been reminded, in each of my daily readings, to be mindful and aware of the realities of the world—the ones we tend to sweep under the rug because they have become as mundane as dust or dirt. I have been forced to quietly reflect on how my own identity has been shaped by the racial and other social dynamics at play in this country.
Like most white Americans, I never had to think about the color of my skin growing up.
I shamefully remember feeling utterly annoyed by a good friend of mine in my high school class that mentioned how black Americans are systemically marginalized. I rolled my eyes, turned up my nose and scoffed, “Black people? Are you kidding me? They’re poor because they don’t work hard enough. Women are the ones that are marginalized!”
Why did I consider women but not people of color to be marginalized? Because as a woman, I am constantly having to compete with, defend myself against and compare myself to the established “norm”: white males. As a white woman, however, I shared at least one of the characteristics of the dominant group: white skin. And so I have a share of the power scheme. The color of my skin has ensured that I am part of the American norm, and therefore it has never needed to be brought to my attention.
That boy in my class was, obviously, worlds ahead of me developmentally. He had clearly done some reading outside of school to learn about the reality of the American system. (They don’t teach you that stuff in school.)
While I was no doubt right that women in American face misogyny and discrimination every day, it is impossible to pretend that race does not also garner abject discrimination of the worst kind.
Criminal injustice, achievement gaps in education, and socioeconomic disparities in the U.S. all share a common denominator: ethnic and racial discrimination. But since the Civil Rights movement has passed, the issue of racism has been habitually swept under the rug by nearly every American that doesn’t explicitly experience it.
Take me, for instance, in my high school years: I was completely unaware that systemic discrimination of people of color still happened.
More than anything, I blame the education system, which has a bad habit of dancing around reality. (Consider what you learned about the treatment of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latin Americans and immigrant populations throughout history. Rest assured, you didn’t learn the whole story.)
The lie that keeps the cycles of disparity and inequality alive in this country is the one we’re taught from our first days in school: we live in a meritocratic society in which people who put in the work and effort will succeed.
It’s not true. For white people, this notion merely reinforces negative stereotypes of people of color and of the poor in general. For people of color and the poor, this idea informs them that they are to blame for their own marginalization. Also not true.
None of this means that being white is a bad thing. It means that we have a responsibility to lift up the rug and shake it out. See what has been swept under it. Acknowledge that the color of our skin means something. It can mean that we continue to benefit from an inherently racist system and maintain power that way; or it can mean that we become vehement anti-racists and use our power that way.
For a nation that proudly claims to stand for justice, liberty and equality—the fundamental tenets of our civic culture—I think the duty of white Americans and the choice we face is obvious.