Tag Archives: schools

Our neighborhood school, race and racism; by the numbers

It must be a part of the package of privileges that are attached to being white– the package of privileges that I have– that I am so stunned by certain things.  Or at least part of the package that I would remained stunned by certain things past the age of about 30 which I am well past.  I carry with me some basic expectation of fairness, some sense that if things are wrong someone will notice and step forward to do something about it. On some level this is still my sensibility.

I have written in passing about the lunch tables– the now-segregated lunch tables at my daughter’s school and perhaps I will write more.  If it weren’t a set of young people involved whose parents should give permission, I’d go and take some pictures of these beautiful, lively girls and boys– arranged now so carefully with, for the most part, dark-skinned children together at one set of tables and white children at another set of tables.  They are laughing and tossing things and telling and shouting and generally having a good time–with some food-trading and some eating in the mix of the scene.  But things have happened and the effects of racism and its enforced divisions have sunk in and been absorbed and for the most part the children eat separately divided by race and by class.

I had hoped for better in the world by now– hoped that things wouldn’t look quite so starkly like this for children 10 years old.  But if you came to our school at lunch time with your eyes open you could see for yourself that racism and the resulting divisions according to race–are alive and well at this good school.

Toward the very beginning of this blogging project I wrote a piece called Student Council, third grade.  I cried while I wrote that piece and I cried many times as I talked to people about the incident I had written about– my daughter literally saying to me that she guessed you “have to be a different kind of person” to get elected to student council– and then naming by name– the young people who were the “different kind of person” and all of them white people.

I cried because I was witnessing her sadness, her self-doubt, her internal struggle not to give up on what she wanted which was, on that day, to be able to run for student council and win.  And I knew that this wasn’t only, or even mostly a personal struggle, but something more like a tsunami of hundreds of years of mistreatment and racist laws and institutions and struggles that brought us and her to that day and her singular question about what kind of person can run for and be on the student council.  But she didn’t know that.  To her it just felt personal.

My heart broke that day and many times over after that day.  I don’t know what to do about it.  I have, as all of us do, an obligation to fix that situation and I have not fixed it.  As her mother, I don’t want the conclusions that seemed to be forming in her mind, to take hold of her brilliant and interesting mind in any way.  Preventing that is, in my mind, the battle alongside the battle to end racism forever.

Now time has passed, not a long, long time, but a significant amount of time in the life of a 10-year-old.

Yesterday she came home and told me about still another student council election.  This year she didn’t run for student council and she didn’t seem sad, she was pissed off.  She helped another friend of hers– another girl of color to run.  But still she said that everyone said (she mimicked jeeringly) that the smart kids should be on student council.  And again, when I asked who those kids are– it turns out the smart kids are all white, every single one.  Seven young people ran and three of the seven are girls of color– good friends of my daughter’s.  Three young people won and all of them are white.  My daughter told me of her efforts, some successful, to get others to vote for one her friends.  To my credit, I didn’t lecture her about not giving up.  I decided, to not even point out– at just that moment, that there is something else at play here.

Instead I listened.  And then I went and did a little research.  So here it is.  The demographics of her middle-of-the-city, “desirable and succeeding” urban school.  The student body of the K-8 school is as follows: 662 students.  9% of the student body is black;  57% Latino;  3% Asian;  3% mixed race;  28% white.  So 72% of the students are young people of color and 28% are white young people.

Every year when the Student Council elections happen– with the exception of last year when she had a young, very aware, African-American guy as her teacher–she comes home and tells me about two or three white young people who got elected.  It’s the same young people, it’s different young people, but the demographics and the story are the same, year after year after year.  There is so much to this of course, that many, many books and academic papers fill our shelves and journals– but it comes down to racism and internalized racism and there’s not really a lot more to say on that front.

I mean, really– is this acceptable at our public school?  It cannot be acceptable. I have a lot to figure out, and that is indeed my job– as a white Jewish woman in this world and as the lucky woman who is the mother of my Chicana daughter.  I’d better get moving and for certain I’ll need your help.

Alfie Kohn’s “Bad Signs” and Patricia Smith on “Keepers of the Second Throat”

My new issue of Rethinking Schools just arrived.  I love Rethinking Schools.  They are a low-budget publication with minimal advertising– and they are, as far as I, a mother with a child in a public school, is concerned, the heart and soul of the world of progressive K-12 education.  I’m going to get all bossy here in this post. Whether you have children or not, whether you have school-aged children or not, if you don’t yet subscribe to Rethinking Schools, you should.  And you should ask them to start your subscription with the Spring 2011 issue.  We need them out there doing what they do.  Even better– when I went to insert the link, I see a special gift for you.  The whole Spring 2011 issue is right there online, for free, for you to read the actual articles that I am about to write about.  After reading several of the pieces, there are two I couldn’t help writing about.  One that made me laugh out loud, then hopeful and the other that made me cry while my heart filled with hope.  We’ll start with tears and hope.

The poet extraordinaire, Patricia Smith (Blood Dazzler and Teahouse of the Almighty), whose work I have referred to several times before, writes a piece called “Keepers of the Second Throat“.  It is a rich, honest and beautiful piece, in four sections.  It’s about language, the colonizing and de-legitimizing of language, the erasure not only of voice, but of people, their lives and their history.  The erasures in this piece are about black people, Patricia Smith’s people, though I do think of Patricia Smith as my people.  Her piece begins, “Chicago not only stole my mother’s tongue, it also stole all her yesterdays.”  She also writes about teaching in a sixth grade classroom and her fight to give her students not just language, but their own language, un-corrected, un-“fixed”, and through their own language, she wants to give the important knowledge of their right to tell their own stories, about their own lives.

She finishes this section saying, “I celebrate every single word a child says, every movement of their pen on paper, and I’m mesmerized when those stories begin to emerge.  I stop what I’m doing and I listen.  We’ve got to teach that every utterance, every story is legitimate… In the beginning, it doesn’t matter if anyone wants to hear.  What matters is what you have to say.”

I hope you will read this article and then hold it in your heart and back pocket– as you talk to young people, all people, about their true stories.

On to laugh-out-loud hope.  Alfie Kohn, whose name I know, but whose work I am not very familiar with at all, contributes a piece called Bad Signs.  The sub-title reads, “Because they’re so pervasive in schools– and accepted so uncritically, it’s worth digging into the hidden premises of inspirational posters’ chirpy banalities about self-improvement.”    I was especially thrilled to read this for three reasons.  For one, it relieved me of the obligation to write something similar, though these signs have gotten under my skin since the first days we walked through the door of my daughter’s school.  In finding that Alfie Kohn, an educator and writer of books, is especially bothered by this trend too– I was relieved of feeling like the crankiest, most fault-finding person on the planet.   Secondly, I just liked sharing this perspective with him.  And third, the piece made me laugh out loud.  Hard.  It is hilarious, and he offers some important thinking about the not-so-hidden subtext reflected in those posters as well as his thoughts about what he believes should be reflected on the walls of our children’s schools.  One of my favorite lines is when he comments on a poster that he has seen in many different kinds of schools– one which reads, ‘Only Positive Attitudes Allowed Beyond this Point’.  He writes, “I found myself imagining how its message might be reworded for satirical purposes.  Once I came up with “Have a Nice Day…or Else.”

I have no way of knowing whether this kind of thing makes you laugh until tears roll down your cheeks as it did for me– but it was good to have a laugh with Alfie Kohn.  I hope that our public schools will continue to exist, not privatized, not full of advertising.  I hope that more and more, rather than less and less, they will be real places for young people to learn, to speak their minds in their own voices and languages and to have a chance to do what Rethinking Schools and Patricia Smith and Alfie Kohn do so well– try out new and original and hopeful ideas on behalf of children, on behalf of us all.