Two school years ago or so, when Rosa Parks died, I wrote the word “nigger” in chalk, and took the time to educate my children about her importance, and what she meant to me and the rest of us. Last year, I used hip-hop to help my students understand the reasons why I don’t use it and why this country still has a long way to go before it’s truly equal. This year, my approach had to be different for numerous reasons. In this city, social studies programs throughout the school system have deteriorated into nothing more than the recognition of dates and names, but never an understanding of themes and ideas, and how those ideas have ramifications until today. Of course, it starts from the top, as I don’t believe they care enough about our educational system to make them into critical thinkers and doers, but mere employees and servants.
As far as my kids go, none of them have the sense that this country is not the way it should be, and it wasn’t so long ago that the color of one’s skin determined the quality and quantity of rights and liberties we take for granted, like public education, lavatory usage, public transportation, and employment. Granted, the government has resegregated America starting from the public schools and worked its way outwards, but that’s besides the point. The way education has gone these days, they’d be fortunate to get a social studies teacher who will challenge their ideas about how the world works, or for that matter reinforce their understanding of the lack of equity amongst schools across the nation and in their own neighborhoods.
With that said, I sent the letter out to my homeroom as well as my other class (we’ll call them the regular class). I wasn’t able to give the speech to my homeroom kids, as they’ve drawn the ire of so many of their subject teachers as well as the assistant principal, deans, and other officials in the building. (Yes, that’s my class that’s staying after school again.) I did however, keep my regular class after school for not being on their best behavior over the last few years, mainly because they’re the class that prompted the letter.
After reading the letter, I added some serious commentary about how they were so fortunate to be in the positions they’re in, and how every teacher they have really care about their education to the point where we would shake them if it meant they’d become better people. I also discussed what I’ve been through, having been called nigger, having seen people die and/or get shot at, and how I have family in jail wishing they could come back to this setting all over again. Lastly, I told them how MLK’s dream was never fulfilled because a day after he said the speech, he was assassinated, and he never got the chance to see his dream fulfilled. It’s their time now. I wasn’t there to scare them; I was there to teach them, despite what their fellow students might have said.
I was in a moment, the same moment I had when Rosa Parks died, when I listen to Jay-Z’s “Minority Report,” when I saw X, when I plod through another chapter of Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, when I see postcards of public lynchings, when I see The US vs. John Lennon and how John was harassed for his personal beliefs, or even when I see immigrant families on the F train, picking the father up from work. I didn’t cry, but I was too damn close. And I didn’t expect to touch any of them to the point where they’d transform into great people, but I wanted to plant a seed.
Their reactions? Anywhere from wonder to utter respect. I affected the more passionate ones, and that was when I knew I had something going. I had the regular class write a response letter to me in class, and some of them weren’t in-depth, mainly because they don’t have the skills yet to think critically, and that’s fine. But the conversations became different, and the respect is definitely palpable, too. I had their respect as a teacher before, but now I have it as a person as well. I see a little change in them, and that’s good to see. Here’s hoping that I can write something more in-depth about these kids in a few years.
We’re still waiting for MLK’s dream to come true, too …
jose, who gives a headnod to Heath Ledger’s family …
p.s. – Giving speeches to kids and writing letters are high-risk behaviors if you don’t have experience with those issues. Then again, the same goes for teaching in general.