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…
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.
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.