Five years ago, I sat in an old, falling-apart high school, not teaching two 19-year-old boys about reading. I was supposed to be teaching them about reading, but the other six kids in the class had failed to show up that day, and morale was low. It was incurably hot, and the room we were in didn't have air conditioning. After going through the motions of phonics exercises, we had stretched out in front of a jangly plastic box fan and were talking about the rapper Juvenile.
I knew nothing about Juvenile. Well, that wasn't really true. I knew that he thought I looked good when I backed that thang up. But my students knew lots about him. He had been born in New Orleans and grew up in the third ward, in the same housing projects as one of my students. Both students idolized Juvenile. They knew what kind of car he drove, where his kids lived, and how many times he had been shot.
"I want to be like him when I grow up," said one of my students. I reacted exactly the way I had been taught to react: like a racist.
I know that word is jarring and difficult, but I think it's important to say it. Yesterday I went to a New Teachers' Roundtable session about naming racism and reconnecting to our humanity. The Roundtable engages in questions around race, class, culture, education, oppression, and pedagogy every month, and it's always simultaneously challenging and liberating. This story came up for me while were talking about racist systems as they manifest themselves in our schools. Honestly, you can point to basically anything at any charter school in New Orleans and find racist undertones. That wasn't hard. It was hard, however, to look my own racism in the face and acknowledge it for what it was.
I grew up with a rigid set of values, although I didn't realize it. My family is politically liberal, and I was told a lot that I could do whatever I wanted to do when I grew up. The obvious prerequisites, of course, were that I was going to go to a good college, value Western ideals of academia, and prioritize getting a high score on the SAT. And then I could do whatever I wanted to do.
Most people who come from privilege have similar predetermined destines. And in the world we live in, having a college degree (or better) does mean that the options that you have in terms of a career path and an income bracket are expanded dramatically. That's why we think that telling kids from all socio-economic backgrounds that they should go to college isn't racist. We think it's actually really helpful and loving and empathetic.
To some degree, that's true. Everyone deserves the right to do whatever she wants to do with her life, provided it doesn't hurt anyone else. But there are also lots of problems. For one thing, getting kids from low income brackets into college hasn't been proven to do all that much for them, because the college dropout rate is so high for that demographic. There are financial reasons for that, and cultural reasons too. Unfortunately, higher education for poor people usually makes life harder, not easier.
The system is out-of-whack. We need to acknowledge that first. But there's more to it. So back to the story.
I told my student, "You don't want to be like Juvenile! You want to go to college. After that, you can be whatever you want to be."
My student said, "I want to be a dealer and a rapper."
I said, "That's dangerous! You might die."
He said, "I don't care. I want to die young."
I said, "That's insane. You don't realize how much you want to go to college!"
My students didn't want to go to college. My assumption that they wanted to go to college was racist. I wish I could go back in time to change the course of that conversation. I had made a dumb mistake. I'd assumed my students were saying they wanted to be rappers and dealers because they were trying to defy me. I was so wrapped up in my own story that I couldn't get beneath the surface of what they were saying. Ultimately, this student was telling me that he lacked self-worth.
Racist systems intentionally prevent people from feeling worthy. That's kind of the point. Every time we try to control people who are culturally different than we are -- even if it's by making them do something as simple as walk in perfect, silent, uniform lines without being able to give a reason for that -- we are sending a message: You are small. I am big. I have power over you. Don't forget it. We start sending this message when kids are young, and we perpetuate it until they graduate from high school. We say, "You must be QUIET and LEARN THESE FACTS ABOUT GRAMMAR, because THAT will give you power." It's a lie. That will not give our students power. That gives us (the white people in charge) power.
What will give our students power is to stand in solidarity with them as they learn what is unique and special and amazing about exactly the people they are. Our students will find power in their own families and personal histories. Our students will find power in their pride, in their joy, and in their slowly- and delicately-forming self-worths. Then, if they want to learn those facts about grammar, they will. And it will be because they want to.
The student I had who said he wanted to die young died young. His death met no fanfare: just another young black male casualty, as we've all grown so desensitized to. The story in the paper was less than 200 words long. There were barely a dozen people at his funeral.
What happens when we teach children to fight for what they think is unfair? What happens when we teach them to be self-advocates? When we celebrate their own celebration of self? It can look a lot like chaos, to those of us who are used to control, power, and compliance. It can seem like a mess. People get hurt. It's not easy, or immediate.
But the universe started with a big, messy explosion too. Success is dependent not on effort, but on a steadfast inherent belief that it can be achieved. We must teach our children to love themselves. The rest will fall into place.