I was handing back finals in class the other day. When I gave Mandy hers, her immediate reaction was, “C plus!? Why’d I get a C plus?! It’s because I’m Black isn’t it?”
I’m sure many public school teachers have, at some point, been accused of racism, and this wasn’t the first time I’ve had a comment like this directed at me. It makes sense: Our students are grappling with questions about who they are in the world, what their world is to them, and how their words and actions can affect and shape it, and, frankly, race and racism are very real, palpable parts of our students’ lives. Questions of race and politics are an everyday part of my job, explicitly stated or not. I’d like to be able to say that I always approach these conversations with aplomb and empathy, that I always use them to open up larger conversations about the implications of oppression and privilege. But in this case I just got mad. Because here’s another reality of the lives of teachers: There are some kids we just don’t like or get along with. Mandy is one of those kids for me.
I feel a little uncomfortable admitting this: When I was a brand new teacher, I always assumed I’d love all my students, and the force of my love and my dedication to changing their lives would be a push to inspire them to love themselves and to make change in their own lives. And I really do work at loving my students, all of them. I try to understand them and get to know where they’re coming from. I try to start every day fresh; even if I had a negative interaction with a kid, I’ll come into class the next day with the intention of being friendly and “starting over.”
I really tried with Mandy. She’d come to my class, an elective, recommended by her English teacher, a friend of mine. Mandy had told me she wanted to be a writer one day, and so I had high hopes for her. But our relationship started to sour pretty quickly. When it did, I initiated a conference with her counselor mediating so that we could work towards some resolution. When she voiced her concern—I was too hard on her—I looked for every opportunity for praise, and I tried to limit my comments on her pieces. But no matter what I did, Mandy complained, mocked me, didn’t take my advice, talked back to me, didn’t listen.
In many ways, Mandy is a very hard student to like. Students even complained to me about her attitude in class. That said, I’m not proud of my reaction to her accusation of racism being the cause of a grade she was displeased with. Aside from the fact that anger is rarely useful (although I was able to elicit an apology from her), I do think there’s something to what she had to say. I don’t mean that my grade was based in racism—I think my grade was fair, that her final really was C plus, not A, work. But I can’t deny the reality race and racism play in our students’ achievement.
I still remember very clearly a conversation that arose with my students during my student teaching in Detroit, Michigan. I was in despair. I’d just finished grading students’ final short essay tests on Oedipus Rex. Students, uniformly, had done very poorly on the test. It wasn’t because they hadn’t read Oedipus Rex. I knew they had; after all, we’d read the whole play in class, since the school couldn’t afford extra copies of the book to take home with them.
The problem was that these students, seniors in high school, had never been taught to write essays, not even short answer essays with topic sentences and supporting details. My teaching this was new to them.
I handed back their tests, their Fs. Students were annoyed; I could hear the grumbling. They didn’t want Fs; they were just trying to graduate and be done with high school. “Ms. Falls, this is too hard. You give us too much work. Of course we didn’t do well!” I had been prepared for this, and I launched into my speech. “This is not too much. When I was a senior in high school, we were expected to write, not only these kinds of short answers but full essays. My senior English final was a ten page paper.” “But Ms. Falls, this is Detroit!”
Indeed this was Detroit; the students had pinned down the exact problem: My high school had been a predominately white, middle-class suburban high school. This was Detroit: One hundred percent of my students were Black and poor. The high school had a twenty-five percent graduation rate. One morning when I came to school, I saw a car crashed into the front doors of the building. It had been shot up in a drive-by and was left, all bullet-riddled, to greet the students as they came to school. And my students had made it to their senior year of high school without ever being expected to write full essays.
Why had they never been expected to learn the same things I had been expected to learn? None of the teachers at Henry Ford High School had ever used racial slurs to refer to their students; no one had ever said explicitly that they didn’t expect much of these Black kids. But that was the reality. These students had inherited the racist legacy of this country: Their parents and grandparents had come from poverty. Likely their parents and almost certainly their grandparents had not even been allowed to go to college. They didn’t have faith in the educational system; they didn’t believe that school was a path for them to gain power. Why would they? They hadn’t actually witnessed this in their lives. Seventy-five percent of them, in fact, had already left the system. And their teachers had gotten burned out trying to break through these barriers; they had given up. Racism and poverty had become such a part of the system, that, for the most part, students and teachers didn’t see it, but here were my students telling me, “This is Detroit.”
Twelve years later, San Francisco, California, for all its mythical liberalness, is a city that still embodies these realities of race and class oppression. The city itself can be a very hard place for poor folks to live given the skyrocketing cost of living. People of color, particularly Blacks, have been pushed out of the city or pushed into the ghetto. The majority of my school’s Black students come from the projects all the way across town. Many of them spend hours riding the city buses to get to and from school, and many of them feel disconnected from the school culture because of the distance. Students who live in the projects often express to me that they can’t stay late at school for various events or extra-curricular activities because it isn’t safe for them to return home after dark. And, like most other public schools in the country, our school has a divide between the scores of our majority population (in our case Asian students) and the scores of our Black and Latino students.
Mandy comes from a single parent family. She doesn’t really know her father, who is currently in prison. Her mom had her young and never went to college. Despite all this, Mandy aspires to be a good student. She wants to get the grades. She has enrolled in honors and advanced placement classes, even knowing that they will be a challenge for her. But the reality is that she’s not as strong a writer as her peers. She sometimes struggles academically. And I can feel for this struggle: She is often the only Black student in these honors classes. Not only must she feel like she has to achieve for herself, but she must feel like she has to do well as a representation of her race. Whether this is a conscious or unconscious drive, it must feel like a burden. And her Asian and white peers must, consciously or not, weigh her too as the single Black student in the class. Given this much larger context, it makes sense that Mandy would have a chip on her shoulder, that she would feel threatened by criticism. My suggestions for improvement are just one more reminder that she’s not where she would like to be.
As a teacher, I struggle all the time with this larger context. I don’t want to fall into the trap that many other well-meaning teachers fall into of not having sufficiently high expectations for my minority students, of behaving as though just showing up and trying is enough. I don’t think this does any of my students a service, and I think this kind of patronizing attitude is just as racist as a “you’re not good enough” attitude.
Further, as a white, middle-class teacher, I have to be aware of my own biases. All teachers have an agenda, whether they admit it or know it or not. How much of the values, ideas, and approaches I teach are such a part of this unequal society that I’m a part of that I can’t even see that they’re biased or oppressive? How much of our oppressive culture gets passed along in any sort of institutional setting despite people like me who work from the inside to make change?
I don’t have all the answers, but I hope to be a teacher who is at least conscious of all these dynamics that so many people aren’t conscious of. I hear teachers I work with complaining all the time about students “playing the race card” or saying things like, “My best friend is Black, so I can’t be racist.” (Or one White colleague likes to say, “I’m more African-American than my students because I actually grew up in South Africa.”): None of these approaches or attitudes actually change the real dynamics of race in our schools. And our schools are simply a microcosm of society at large. If we can’t productively talk about race and racism in the classroom, we won’t get very far in addressing racism in our nation. I hope that the next time a student says something like what Mandy said to me, I’ll be able to engage better and start a conversation rather than getting mad.