Growing up in such a small and sheltered place (two stoplights, one Dairy Queen, and approximately 15 churches) had its distinct advantages. I had very close friends who were more like family. I benefited from a sound and extremely stable education (especially in junior high where I had the same teacher for each core class for 3 years straight). I was safe to ride my bike, cruise in my car, or walk about town with little to no real concern of being snatched up. Heck, I don't know that my parents ever even locked our front door until I went away to college. I still sometimes forget to lock my car doors, 20 years later.
There were disadvantages too, of course. In a town that small, everyone knows you. Consequently, everyone knows all your business. It can also get kind of boring. Not much to do on a weekend night except for get into trouble. Everything tends to run a few years behind, also -- cable tv, cell phones, politics, fashion (I know... as if I'm really ever one to comment on fashion). And sometimes the sheltered state feels kind of like a police state, especially to a teenager.
Disadvantages aside, please understand that I truly love where I grew up. It was idyllic in so many ways. But it wasn't until I left those city limits that I really began to understand what I'd been missing. See, in my hometown, everyone looked sort of the same. Everyone had basically the same way of thinking. I graduated with 33 people in my class. Three were African-American; two were Hispanic. And I didn't realize that it could be any other way.
When I graduated from college with my teaching degree, there was a real worry among my friends that I'd just stay there forever. I'd been living there and doing my student teaching in my old junior high and high school, and all the members of my family and friends feared that the complacency and comfort would claim me. I probably would have stayed if my mom and dad hadn't sat me down and told me "The life you're meant to lead isn't going to happen here. You are meant for different things and different people."
It is still, to this day, the greatest gift I've ever been given -- the permission to leave.
So I moved to the DFW area and soon got my first teaching job at a junior high (7th and 8th grade) in Arlington. In those two grades, there were 925 students. In my childhood school, kindergarten -12th grade, there'd been less than 700. Everywhere I looked, everyone looked different than I did. My first teaching assignment was as an ESL teacher. For the first time in my life, I was the only white face in the room.
I have never forgotten that feeling.
In the past 13 years at that same school, I've lived a different life for sure. Very different from the first 18 years of my life. I have taught students from all over the world -- France, Vietnam, Korea, China, Mexico, the Czech Republic, etc. A few years ago, I had a student come to my room from Liberia. He and his father and siblings hiked for three weeks, at night, to escape his country's civil war. When we did free reading in class, he squatted under his desk, knees hunched up around his ears. When I asked him about it, he told me, "That is how I used to get small when we would have to hide. That is the way I feel safe." He is also the student who would pick up pencil stubs and crumpled papers, always shaking his head at his wasteful American classmates. I learned a lot from him. Teaching those kids was a pretty big experience for a girl who had barely even left the state in any way other than through a book or a movie.
I've also had my eyes opened in a lot of other ways. I've had students who were homeless. Students whose family income is through drugs or prostitution. Students who were pregnant at 13. Students whose grandparents are only a few years older than I am (by the way, I am only 37). Students whose parent(s) were incarcerated. I've had students who went to jail themselves. In my first year of teaching, the gang unit was called to our campus 4 times in one year to help combat the gang violence. In one of my first assignments, I asked the kids to bring a family picture for a writing assignment. One of my favorite kids brought a picture of him, his father, and his grandfather. He showed me, and I promptly took it next door to ask a more seasoned teacher if they were, in fact, all throwing up gang signs. They were, indeed. There was also a two year old in the picture, attempting the same sign. I also got to know a great many of our kids in that same school who came from regular two-parent, middle class families. We had kids who grew up in multi-million dollar mansions and whose parents went to work as professional athletes. We also had kids who grew up in the trailer park down the street.
It was the absolute strangest place I could have ever wound up. I told my parents very vague details about my daily work life for fear that they'd make me quit on the spot. Back then, I couldn't have told you why I stayed, but I know now. I stayed because I loved those kids. They were so interesting to my small-town self and their honesty and upfront way of dealing with me was such a completely foreign concept. My students became my teachers about all of our cultural differences -- music, hair, dancing, humor, language -- and their delight in my inept fumblings and questions delighted them to no end. In turn, they let me teach them, not just about English or basketball, but about the world outside their own city limits.
Their favorite subject was to interrogate me about my own past -- it still is to some extent. Their eyes would widen as I would tell them about the introduction of the SECOND stoplight to my hometown or how local businesses would close completely for the Friday night football games. They didn't believe that we had no ATM. They scoffed at the fact that the nearest movie theater was 60 miles away. But the statement that really caught their disbelief was the train tracks. For the most part of my life, if you lived in town and were white, you lived on one side of the tracks; if you were black, you lived on the other side. They would shake their heads and tell me that such things weren't legal. I laughed and told them that I didn't really think that this had been a continual legal battle but that society's laws and rules are far more often likely to set the tone than any bow-legged sheriff. They would question me at length about the differences between the two sides and if I thought of my beloved hometown as "full of racism and prejudice". And always there was the question of "where do the mixed-race kids live"? That was a very difficult and hurtful conversation -- for me and for the biracial child innocently asking the question.
Another teacher told me once that I shouldn't share my background with the students, that it would provide fodder for them to accuse me of being racist when a disagreement arose (because of my obviously racist upbringing). But I just couldn't do it; I think it's important to have a firm grip on where we've been in order to know where we're headed.
All the time in my classes, I talk to my kids about differences. I explain very early on that I'm here to provide a safe space for learning and that ignoring someone's differences doesn't eliminate their differences. We talk and debate very freely about lots of issues, including things like religion and race and culture. But we try to also educate each other instead of alienate one another. Sometimes I think about what I hear from them -- what it's like to be a young black man, what it's like to sit in a classroom full of people speaking a different language, or what it's like to struggle with whether to wear a hijab in a world of girls with ponytails and curls -- and I remember those first few moments of loneliness and fear when I looked out into a room that did not reflect me.
That's not to say that life in my classroom is perfect. It looks vastly different than the school and town I grew up in, but some of the same issues still reside. At least once a week, we have to discuss why I won't allow a certain song (because it has the "n" word). And I often have to defend my stance that NOBODY gets to use that word in class. I have had to explain the term "wetback" to a student who claimed to think it was about people working in the sun and sweating. FYI... it does not. (I also knew that he didn't really understand because he called a Caucasian student that after a football practice.) I've had to differentiate that all Hispanics are not Mexican and that not all Hispanics are illegal immigrants to a young man in a philosophical debate. I cannot even begin to tell you the struggles I had trying to illuminate that a person can, in fact, be both Asian AND Chinese (and that the kid wasn't just trying to pull a fast one on this girl). I literally thought my head would explode from the effort. We've also recently had to tackle "that's gay", "retarded", and "no homo". I'm really ready for the repetition of "no homo" after-any-compliment trend to be done.
And my kids aren't alone. I've said some (at best) culturally insensitive things in my lifetime. I'm certainly not proud of it, and I suppose that someone could rake me over the coals for it if they wanted to dig deep enough. But I'd also like to think that I'm pretty aware now of other people and what's hurtful. It's a conscious choice to not go around being a jerk. And the best way to not be a jerk is to educate yourself about people who are different than your own self. My students hear other adults, celebrities, songs, movies, comedy routines, and they assume that because something is "okay" there, it's "okay" for them as well. Being teenagers, it's also hard to get them to avoid pushing a button just for the delight of pushing the button.
So last night, I started hearing about Richie Incognito being suspended from the Miami Dolphins for -- you guessed it -- bullying a teammate with -- yep, you guessed it -- some disgusting slurs and other foul messages. Yet another white dude tossing out a racial slur in order to show his manliness or get his way or just be an idiot -- I don't know. It seems that every time I turn around, someone, somewhere is acting a fool seemingly just to act a fool. And, of course, there's always someone else willing to stand up and defend the fool. Happens all the time. Just take a look at social media once in a while.
Man, social media is like friggin' truth serum. People get behind that profile pic and keyboard and just go buck wild with their nonsense. Social media shows you all the deep dark places people don't talk about at parties.
And every time I see it, I'm right back in my classroom. Because that's what I've decided most social media (and much of the mainstream media) is -- a classroom of stubborn, selective-hearing, excuse-making teenagers. My students give me the same arguments when they are a jerk to someone else. And they are, often, jerks to each other. Their favorite way to be a jerk is to crack a couple of racially/culturally charged jokes. It unnerves me to no end, and we wind up in a whole lot of discussions about self-worth and self-reflection and treating others the way you'd want to be treated. So to see people with a voice or a platform or a little influence throw some backward thinking out into the world for my students to emulate, I get a little pissed.
So here's my lesson, America, and I'm only going to say it once:
- Rape jokes. Not funny.
- Slurs -- racial, religious, sexual. Not funny.
- Mocking the mentally challenged. Not funny.
- Costuming yourself as a survivor of a horrific tragedy. Not funny.
- And while we're on costumes... black face. Not funny.
- Bullying. Not funny.
Come on, America. I need you to think before you speak. Think before you hit "send". Think before you do. Because your kids are watching and learning, and you're creating a whole lot of extra work for me. And that pisses me off more than just your average stupidity.