Today is the last day before a much-needed Fall Break, and so the day’s schedule is different. Today, our kids go to every class for 45 minutes instead of the usual block schedule. As usual, though, I stand outside my door to welcome the morning class into my room. Jose and I don’t say good mornings, but he gives me a look—a look of false mischief. But I know. I know that today Jose is going to be on my team.
Because it’s a strange kind of day, the kids are a bit livelier. Strange days throw kids off their routines, and so they’re chatty and off task.
My new ally calls across the room, “Hey, listen up, she’s talking!” And I have to do everything in my power not to stand there beaming despite the fact that the class refuses to settle down.
Jose still acts like his usual self—still making snide comments where appropriate and, of course, necessary. But today he’s on my team. Noticeably. For everyone to know and see. He’s not shy about it. He’s the best teammate to have. My very first pick.
I don’t take any special notice of him because I know that if I do, the bond will break. We operate on an esoteric Knowing—one that goes without recognition because it’s a covert code that only we can really know about. So I send a nod his way or glance in his direction with a thankful look when I know that no one will notice.
First hour comes and passes, and at 9:00 I send my class out to take their five minute break before they come back in for second hour (I have the same group for two periods).
Five minutes later, in comes everyone.
Except for Jose.
I ask one of his friends where he is, and he tells me Jose is in the office. I ask what he’s done, but his friend won’t tell me. And now I’m worried and confused, but I don’t have time for investigation. I have a class of 30 more students ready and waiting for me to begin my next lesson with them.
Fifth hour rolls around and I keep two of my students in to eat lunch with me. Eduardo* and Angel* find me in my room with their lunch plates piled with scoops of (fake) food. I’ve kept them with me—and they stay gladly—to talk to them about their work in my class.
Eduardo, who used to do absolutely nothing but stare at his desk and whine that 6 sentences for a paragraph was way too many, has suddenly come alive. He’s raising his hand to answer questions. He’s putting real, raw effort into everything I give him to do.
Angel, on the other hand, refuses to pick up his pencil—still. And this after numerous deep talks about his life and his dreams. This is the kid—the first of them all to warm up to me. He was the first one to pour out his heart to me, to stay after school in my room just to talk, to stay in my room during lunchtime. Angel is the one I bonded with first. He’s like my first son.
But he won’t do anything. He’s given up, he tells me. He wants to achieve his goals of being a singer and aw writer, but he knows it won’t happen. So he’s given up.
I have given him gentle, nurturing love. I’ve given him sisterly, straight-talk love. Some days, he will slowly pick up the pencil and slowly write his name or a one-word answer on his page. But most days—9.8 out of 10 days, he does absolutely nothing but rest his head on his arms. I’ve moved on to tough love, calling him out sternly in the middle of class when he decides to put his head down and nagging him relentlessly, firmly to do his work.
He skirts around the issue when I bring it up during our lunchtime conversation. I am sitting on the table in front of both of them, and I’m not my usual friend-like self with him this time. I’m telling him—urging him—to realize that if he gives up on his education, he’s giving up on guaranteeing himself a life he will love. He shrugs and smiles goofily in an attempt to put up a front for his friend. The real Angel, the Angel that comes to my room at the end of the day, is so unlike the one he is in public. The real Angel is quiet and small and worn down by the world.
After spending most of my lunchtime urging him to wake up to reality—or rather, urging him to do something about it—I have to go. I slip off the table I’m sitting on and land on the ground with a thump of defeat. I’m disappointed. I’m frustrated. Not just at Angel, but at the world that made him give up on himself.
I pick up the rest of my students from the cafeteria and bring them back to the classroom. It’s the day before Fall Break, and they are mere hours from their freedom now. They’re hyper and off-task, talking and giggling about other things. I’m calling for the attention, waiting for it to no effect. I’m dragging them chatting and laughing through the assignment I’ve given to them. I’m trying to talk over them to tell them to turn in their papers, but their attention is elsewhere. I move behind the podium and steady myself on it, looking down at it as if I’m reading something but really I’m just trying to hold back the stupid tears that are fighting their way forward against my will and permission. The kids begin to notice that my demeanor has shifted, they are hushing each other--
“HEY! Be quiet! Can’t you see she’s waiting on us!”
The end of the class is nearing. I stand there embarrassed by the tears welling in my eyes. The clock signals that it is time for them to leave, but unlike every other day, they remain in their seats without so much as a peep or a blink. I wave them away and tell them, “Go.” They don’t rush, they walk as though they’re tip-toeing, treading delicately so as not to shake me and make the tears slip out.
But they do.
Some students have stayed behind and they are tending to me, delivering hugs and apologies. The kids from my next class are making their way in, and they see me crying. They yell at the other students, “What have you done to Ms. Myers?!” And they come to me with hugs and love and apologies for the other class.
I feel stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But I can’t help myself. And I can’t even figure out in that moment why I’m crying. It’s not like we’ve never had days when they talk while I’m talking. I figure it’s because I’m emotionally exhausted and feel so frustrated on the days when they don’t realize their own greatness that I cry for them. Mostly, it was Angel that made me cry. In fact, I could feel the ball in my throat coming up when I was talking to him at lunch. I twisted up my mouth to keep it from quivering right before I hopped off the table to go get the rest of my class.
My sixth hour is perfect. Any time I’m talking and someone so much as whispers they jump on his or her back with, “SHHHHHH!! Ms. Myers is talking! GOD! Ya’ll are rude!” They leave me smiling.
Even though sometimes it takes tears to show them that we are all just humans with real feelings, they have big hearts. They can be nurturing—even the toughest ones. They can show deep love and loyalty. And it is truly heart-warming when they do.
Sixth hour is my last hour of the day, so when they leave and passing period is over, I make my way down the hall to find Jose because I have a feeling he’s been sent to in-house suspension. But when I get there, I look around and he’s nowhere to be found. I leave the room and see several administrators huddled in the middle of the hallway, talking about disciplinary-administrator type things. I cut in.
“Do you know where Jose Montoya* is?”
“Oh, he’s gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“He went home.”
“Why? I just had him in my first hour and he was perfect, then he disappeared for second.”
“Yeah, he won’t be back until probably after spring break.”
I can feel my blood draining from my head.
“Spring break? What did he do?”
“Oh, he got caught dealing. Big wad of cash in his pocket. He deals to the high schoolers. Yeah, he’ll be gone for awhile.”
I put my hands to my face and say, more to myself than anyone, “I had him. We were a team.”
I quickly slip away and make my way back down the hall to my room. I walk in. Close the door behind me and turn the lock slowly. I leave the lights off and numbly walk to my desk and fall into my chair. The back is tall and I turn it so that no one can see me if they look through the window of my room. And I just cry. I just weep because I had him. He was mine. We were a team. And now he’s gone. And I cry because I’ll miss him. I cry because he was my favorite. I cry because I know he made a poor choice, but that he is such a good kid with a good, good heart. I cry because this fucking country has hardened him because it’s told him he can’t be anything or do anything more with his life than this kind of thing—the same kind of thing that sends so many just like him to prison or to their early death or to a life of gang violence or drug dealing because there is no better option for them. I cry because I was just about to show him what he could do with his life. Because I had him. He was mine. We were on a team. And then The System took him away.
So I just cry until I have to stop.
I have always been a nerdy lover of books. Gigi, my super cute grandma, used to take me to the library every summer so that I could gather up a collection of books and read until I was rewarded with a fine, shiny medal, which I proudly wore.
At 22 years old, I still like to go to the library (or my friendly Amazon.com) to gather up a collection of books to read. The reward I claim is even better than a shiny medal. I gain insight into my world, myself, and everything in between.
And sometimes the reward, i.e. the insight, is a little bittersweet. In my reading today, I learned—or rather I learned to recognize—something slightly disturbing about myself: I often act from a sense of entitlement.
Why did it take me 22 years to figure this out? Because I grew up totally believing in equal opportunity and equal rights and all that American jazz. So for 22 years I’ve been making up excuses about why I “deserve” preferential treatment.
This is something the author of my Uprooting Racism book, Paul Kivel, taught me about myself. He lists a number of excuses in the book that I admit I have absolutely felt before:
1. I am better educated
2. I have more experience
3. I am more rational
4. My time is more valuable
5. I worked hard to get where I am
6. They probably don’t need as much to live on
7. I don’t actually have direct contact with them so I am not responsible
8. I need to get there on time
9. I’m doing more important things (this is my personal addition to his list)
These kinds of excuses are just the foundation of persistent inequality in our society. Most of us would never stand in a long line, see a person of color and think: “Because I’m white, I should be able to cut him/her.” We live in the twenty-first century.
But recognizing that we think in these more subtle terms of entitlement, as listed above, is almost worse because they’re so hard to be conscious of if they’re not brought to our attention. And furthermore, it’s kind of embarrassing to admit that we may think this way sometimes.
This sense of entitlement is a very surreptitious way of manifesting our latent beliefs that people really are unequal. I don’t mean in the sense of socioeconomics or politics (we all know that’s the case). I mean this sense of entitlement reveals a hidden belief that people are unequal at the human being level.
Let me paint a slightly humiliating picture. The time when my feeling of entitlement is most noticeable is when I’m in the car and I am in a serious hurry to get somewhere. If I’m in a hurry to get somewhere, it is obviously somewhere important that I need to be. So typically, I get extremely frustrated (and frustrated is a euphemism) when other people get in my way, go below or at the speed limit, or just look at me.
My thoughts, which are peppered with expletives I won’t write out, follow these lines: “Why the hell are you in the fast lane when you’re going the speed limit?” “I HAVE SOMEWHERE TO BE!” “DEAR GOD, YOU SHOULDN’T BE DRIVING!” “I don’t have all day, and you clearly don’t have anywhere to be.” “WHY ARE YOU ON THE ROAD?!”
And my actions follow these lines: I weave in and out of cars. I tail cars that won’t yield to me. I throw up my hands in the air to signal my frustration so they can see. I speed past people when they finally move over and then I glare hard core.
All of these thoughts and actions are just the manifestation of me thinking I deserve the road more than anyone else because I “have somewhere to be,” automatically assuming that no one else does because they’re not as important as I am.
That’s hard to admit, and I’m definitely not thinking that explicitly when I act or think that way. But we really do rarely look at the root of the reasons we say or do things. Beneath the superficial reasons, there is usually a much bigger reason for the way we act than we’re willing to admit.
But if we can come forward, see where we err—even when it is incredibly embarrassing in retrospect (like my road rage)—we can really begin to address the ways in which the culture of power is ingrained in us. That culture of power is characterized by a sense of entitlement at the expense of others.
Am I going to be an angel every time I drive in my car, even and especially when I’m late and in a hurry to get somewhere that is important to me, now that I recognize what my actions mean? Probably not likely. But I will certainly be more conscious and aware of what my actions imply about my beliefs.
It was the great Mahatma Gandhi that wisely said:
Just the cutest, sweetest face I've ever seen.
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
Fortunately, all of these things are in our control. With practice and dedication we can be and become exactly who we want to be.
I’m reading an excellent book right now called Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice, by Paul Kivel
. As you can imagine, the book is about the way in which white people benefit from our racist society, what the implications of being a person of color are, and how white people can really grapple with issues rather than stare, dumbfounded, at them.
The other day, I was having a discussion with a group of people about—you guessed it—racial inequality. I was railing on about white privilege and the injustices that plague this country until one of the group members shrugged his shoulders, held up his hands, and said, “I’m not denying that any of that exists, but what am I supposed to do about it? I’m going to be an engineer. I have no say in these things.”
I opened my mouth and said something to say something, but his question was actually thought-provoking, honest, and at the same time extremely saddening.
Okay, I thought, so maybe people aren’t born to be activists for the rest of their lives. My friend is going to be an engineer, and let’s be real: most engineers don’t take up social activism on the side.
So his question about what he was supposed to do to address issues of race and class in this country was legitimate—especially for someone who doesn’t study this stuff for fun (like I do…because I’m real fun).
Moreover his question indicates a genuine (and expectable) misunderstanding about the root causes of social injustice. In America, because we are a materialistic society, we think about social justice in terms of resources allocation—the distribution of wealth, resources, social positions, jobs, etc.
When we think of socioeconomic equality, we think about fettering out goods, services and money in a more equal way.
Thinking in these terms is problematic for a couple reasons:1. By thinking of social justice as the more equal distribution of certain resources, we take ourselves out of the picture. We think like this: As your normal, middle class white girl or boy, what could I possibly do about the allocation of resources? Isn’t that the government’s job? Isn’t that the job of big-time organizations and lobbies that focus on this stuff?
2. Associating justice exclusively with the distribution of wealth and resources misses a huge component of socioeconomic inequality: domination and oppression.
Domination and oppression manifest themselves in the institutions that those in power—white middle and upper class Americans—create and maintain in the U.S. They are the results of age-old prejudices against people that are historically and presently perceived as “different” from what is white, male, and Christian.
Here lies the answer about what we simpletons can do to address the issues of racism in this country: we can acknowledge that domination and oppression exist not just in the faceless “system” but in everyday social interactions that occur within the institutions we comprise.
We—every single one of us, no matter whom we are or what we plan to do with our lives—can do something about racism in this country. It begins with recognizing that we have indeed crafted a culture of power and understanding what that culture’s message is to excluded groups
If we have the power to oppress we certainly have the power to stop.
More on this later.