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.

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.

Oklahoma has been a stormy mess for the past week. Indeed, the weather has shown us the worst of this state—the horrific devastation of a deadly tornado—and the best of this state—the thousands of people doing everything they can to help those that lost everything in the tornado’s wake.

I keep trying to comprehend coming out of the rubble after a tornado has wiped out everything and finding nothing left. What is it like to realize suddenly that you have nothing? What is it like to, in a moment, become homeless with nowhere to go? Worse still, what is it like to be helpless in protecting the ones you love most dearly and finding that they’re gone at the end of the day?

It’s not easy to fathom, or even possible for that matter.

Oklahoma has been famous in national media this week. President Obama will be headed our way this weekend. All the major news sources talk about the destruction in Moore each day and evening, as well as the social and political responses. Everywhere—on social media and around the community—there are opportunities to donate needed supplies and money to the relief efforts for that neighborhood. People near and far from the area have dropped what they’re doing to drive to Moore and help in any way that they can.

A common understanding has arisen from this tragedy: often it is the worst experiences that bring a community together, encourage people to appreciate what they have, and cause people to generously give whatever they can.

We have seen this kind of thing happen in Oklahoma perhaps too many times. The sense of community in this state is strong and certainly gives me a great appreciation for my home. What these moments of affliction reveal about Oklahomans is that they are a people with a powerful will to give and to provide for the unfortunate.

I hope we can recognize that the will to give, to be generous and kind and caring for the needy is not simply something that just the victims of sudden, massive tragedies need. There are people so close to us, in our own individual communities, that need our care, our support, our love. There are people so close to us that have lost everything, started with nothing, or have suffered generations of poverty because of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, disease or disability.

It is a truly beautiful thing to see so many helping hands and loving hearts in the aftermath of this catastrophe. Let us not forget that we don’t have to stop helping and loving and supporting and caring when the cleanup is finished and the affected people have moved on. We have opportunities to give supplies, money, time and even just recognition every single day to people who need it in our communities. Homelessness and poverty are tragedies that happen daily and chronically. They too could use some Oklahoma love.

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.

When we moved into a real house for the first time, my mother was determined that we should live in the district of the best public school around. And so we did.

For two years, I went to public school before my mother became dissatisfied and sent me, once again, to a private school. I stayed there for a year and a half before money got really tight and I was forced to go back to my public school in the middle of my sophomore year. But having come from all the best schools, and having a mother who was very much involved in my school experience, I was unquestionably placed on the advanced track.

While my other peers were learning how to get by, I was learning how to write college-level essays. While they were bored in class, my teachers constantly challenged me. While they were locked in a classroom culture that devalued achievement, I was surrounded by students with ambition and motivation. While my other peers were expected to pass, I was expected to excel.

I graduated in the top two percent of my class of over 700 students. On the stage of my high school graduation, where all the top students sat, were the same students that had been plucked by the system and placed on the advanced track.
One of the most fundamental problems with the tracking system in primary and secondary education is that it systematically creates and maintains our stratified society. This system deems some students worthy of the best education and some students worthy of the worst. It challenges some students to exceed what is expected of them, and it limits other students to achieve the bare minimum.

The immediate implications of this tracking system are that only a fraction of the students that graduate are ready for college. The medium-term implications are that the standard in colleges, specifically state universities, becomes lowered because so great a percentage of the students don’t have the basic skills necessary for college-level success.

To compound the problem, people of color and the poor tend to be placed on the lowest academic tracks. For example, black students, “particularly black male students, are three times as likely to be in class for the educable mentally retarded as are white students, but only one-half as likely to be in class for the gifted or talented” (Black Students and School Failure, Irvine, p. 11). Researchers have concluded that “two-thirds or more of high-ability, high [socioeconomic status] students were in the academic track, but only one-half of the high-ability, low [socioeconomic status] students were enrolled in the academic track” (11).

This is an example of the re-segregation taking place in schools today, in which students of color are placed on different academic tracks because of pervasive, conscious and/or subconscious racist beliefs of their inferiority.

The immediate impact of the tracking system in primary and secondary education is displayed in college enrollment and dropout rates. In 2010, 60.5 percent of white students enrolled in college, compared to a mere 14.5 percent of black students, 13 percent of Hispanic students, 6.1 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander students, and .9 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students.

Moreover, many of those students of color that do make it to college find that they are not prepared—academically, financially or socially—for college. Only 20.4 percent of black students, 27.9 percent of Hispanic students, and 21.8 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native students graduated from college in 2008. The graduation rates for Asian/Pacific Islander and white students were 45 percent and 41.1 percent, respectively.

Programs with a mission to equalize education are not enough. They are a painkiller rather than an antibiotic. The problem is much deeper, much more complex and far too multi-faceted for certain ingredients in the prescription to make any real, lasting difference. Our schools need holistic reformation. It is more than just misallocation or unfair distribution of resources in the education system. There is something else going on—something far more intentional than we’d like to believe.

We must realize our education system is actively promoting hierarchies based on racial and ethnic discrimination while hiding behind the glossy shield of programs with “good intentions.”
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. The idea 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.