Don’t Blame The Kids (On The Women’s March and Getting “Woke”)

Jose Vilson Education, Featured, Politics

I wore black on the day the Thief-In-Chief was inaugurated, swearing up and down my apartment as he swore up and down to protect his constituents. The image on my shirt, a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands, was the only thing beaming on my apparel. Only one of my co-workers had discussed any plans to discuss the proceedings. I wanted to abstain from what was sure to be malarkey. This was the first inauguration I had no intention of watching live. Yes, I even saw both Dubya’s inaugurations for critical analysis. I hate that people keep saying “Don’t worry; we’ve survived worse” because some people don’t survive the “tough times.” Only those that get to tell the stories of how we survived. I needed a visible form of protest on January 20th, 2017, as is my right.

This inauguration redrew the lines from “left vs. right” to “human vs. inhumane,” and too many of us are caught in the crosshairs.

For those who’ve followed me for some time, you know the types of discussions I’ve had with prior classes. I’ve spoken about the merciless killing of black children at the hands of the state, the deportation of millions of children, mostly Latino / Chicano, and the unfair state of standardized testing on my students. Sometimes, I’ll do it through a professional veneer, and other times, I just go off. Each time, I hoped to elicit some form of response, to plant a seed within the listeners that would last them long after they graduated from my classroom. This year, I thought I had the words for my students because I had done it so many times before.

After my presumed readiness, on January 20th, 2017, while the small-handed fool placed his nails on Bibles, all I could muster was “if you’d like to talk about the events of today, let me know.” Their response was the biggest thud I’ve felt in a long time.

How do you make children who’ve been through our school system care? Many students in our school system have to go through institutions that don’t seem to care about them outside of their test scores. If students’ working conditions are teachers’ working conditions, then the no-fun, doomsday-if-test-scores-don’t-go-up method of teaching children stunt intellectual growth for all involved. Our children have trauma happen to them regularly, and adults respond with academic routine. That might be conventional wisdom to provide students with routines that make them comfortable, but a larger part of me questions comfort when we’re not addressing root causes. We can’t, at once, say we’re against the school-to-prison pipeline and endorse actions that have our students openly call our schools “like jail.”

So when I heard the thud, I felt myself openly questioning what I was even doing in this classroom. I did my best to not blame them for being disengaged. I blamed myself. For not listening enough to students’ concern. For not rallying folks around me to consider all of these dimensions. For not checking my own sense of discomfort and conflict with the various roles I play in and out of the classroom. We’re all trying to get through “this,” and even in my twelfth year, I still don’t have it all together. I fear because I keep learning new things, I never might. I help to organize people, but neither my thoughts nor my desk are put together.

Maybe I was the thud.

On Saturday, I wore black again. This time, it was an EduColor hoodie. So did Luz. Alejandro had a Batman hoodie, appropriate given Trump’s quoting of Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. We took two subway trains to 47th and 2nd, along with masses of people waiting to march to Trump Towers. Some people estimated that 400 thousand of us paid President Trump a visit at his black and gold residence. Women of different political affiliations took the lead this time, bringing their children and the men who support them along. We in New York walked in solidarity with people across the world to denounce the Thief-in-Chief, but also the personal platform of bigotry and greed that let him skate into the highest political seat in the world.

It didn’t matter whether the participants in this walk were “woke” or not, if this was their first time getting activated or their hundredth, if they voted for Secretary Clinton or sat out to wait for a more progressive presidential candidate, or if they just wanted to send a strong message to men who think they can legislate their vaginas. It didn’t even matter to me that the police actively smiled at us while they would do no such thing during a more “threatening” protest like the May Day or Black Lives Matter protests. My son would know that women of color, from his mother and grandmother who both encouraged me to attend with them, were leaders in the resistance. My five-year-old son would also see his father would stand side by side, supporting the women around him to take a stand for their bodies, their choices, and their ideas. All of the attendees – and the many passersby in one of the busiest cross-sections in the country – also got to see a full spectrum of resistance. In that moment, what was possible seemed possible given the energy on the streets of NYC.

Which brings me back to my classroom. On the day the Orange Fascist was elected president back in November, I was reminded how isolating the teaching profession is. Across our school system, opportunities to collaborate mean opportunities to meander about data and assessments while little about the corporate culture of NYC public schools changes. I don’t envy my friends who work in sanctuary schools that allow for autonomy and engagement in their curricula because I know those kids will benefit. I regularly turn to my friends who have been banished by their school systems for their political leanings, who wish they had a regular classroom to call theirs for hope and encouragement. This year, I know I’ve been at a loss for how to make my subversion more visible.

It’s not the students’ fault for not being as responsive as students in the past have been. It’s our fault, really. Including myself. Our national curricula breeds conservatism and uncritical thought. The Understanding by Design model has been corrupted if the first step in our backwards design is to assume that the standardized test itself is what matters most for our students’ well-being. Our school leaders have adopted self-preservation over controversy and compliance over the complex nature of doing the work. Yet, it always seems the most critical educators feel the need to develop larger shoulders instead of spreading the weight out. The Women’s March served as an example that the only way to lead is together en masse. Our students should take part at their ready. That is the win.

Our president is Trump. Our systems are, too. And I’ll be cotdamned if they swallow up my students, too.