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…
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.
Once upon a time there were these white guys that came together to hash out the structures of government for a new nation. They were pretty smart. In fact, they actually really had a fear of ignorant and just plain stupid people. They also were afraid of tyrants—especially religious ones. But that’s irrelevant for this story right now.
This bunch really liked democracy, thought it was a nice idea, believed in rights and stuff. But they were smart enough to realize that in a democracy, if the majority of citizens are just plain idiots, that doesn’t really make for a very functional, beneficial government
. So instead, they turned to the idea of a republic. This republic was supposed to act as a buffer against tyranny by the stupid mob.
But, said these men, if citizens of this new country are going to vote—even for representatives—they had better be at least somewhat educated so that they can make proper decisions when voting. It is, after all, a social contract, in which each person gives up some freedom to ensure that the liberties of everyone are protected by the sovereign entity to which all subscribe.
Unfortunately, all the buffers that those genius old men put up over 200 years ago have snapped under the weight of the complex nation that arose from those thirteen initial colonies. Since then, we’ve gone through events that have contorted the pretty American picture painted by the Founders’ idealism. We’ve been participated in genocide of Native Americans, Civil War, slavery, eugenics, imperialism, terrorist attacks, secret operations to exploit others, a Civil Rights Movement, assassinations, the “war on drugs,” anti-immigration policies, corporate takeover, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Instead of being an “informed” polity, Americans overdose on stupefying reports by the media. Yes, stupefying. Because the way the media (and even our classroom textbooks) report what’s going on in the world—domestic and abroad, past and present—literally makes those who read it unconscious to reality.
There is no simplified version of reality, and yet everything we are taught is served to us on a silver platter comprising out-of-context clips and quotes and a deluge of facts without anyone to critically analyze or question them.
Let’s think about how we got to this place. For centuries—indeed, since before the founding of this nation—white colonists and later Americans have been denying access to the marketplace of ideas to specific groups: women, any person of color, any non-land-owning white person, immigrants, etc. Denying access means that these groups have been denied the ability to contribute to the production of mainstream public opinion, sentimentality, ideology, and culture.
In other words, we have a long history of unquestioningly accepting whatever the “authorities” say. There have been only brief periods in our history in which people have really challenged authority, but this is not one of those eras.
Today, among hippy college kids, being outside of the “mainstream” is “cool.” But face the fact that mainstream America holds the power because of their numbers and their political clout. So if you’re under the impression that you’re cool because you think mainstream is uncool, you should realign your values: You should give a shit that mainstream tends to mean unconscious to reality. You should give a shit that being “mainstream” means being part of the majority that just floats along the political and social brook of ignorance.
Whether you sit along the edge of the river or you’re floating along in it, it’s going to continue to erode the foundations of that democratic republic those beloved old men created. And then we’re all just shit out of luck, because when everything’s flooded only those at the top will be fine. Even more, they’ll be the ones that throw you the lifeboat…or not.