Chronicles of a Recovering Teacher: Never Enough

I plan to write more about my teaching experience as time goes on and as I continue to recover from it (I voluntarily left the profession last year), but I wanted to react to this new teacher book, recently released.

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood by Christopher Emdin

There are so many teacher books, but this one is in the category of “books I would have loved to write but couldn’t because I was too busy teaching.” This particular paragraph, (not from the book, but from an interview with the author), is prescient and painful:

Part of a system of oppression is allowing the folks who have the power to create change feel as though they’re responsible for keeping the narrative. So a lot of black teachers go into urban schools and within the first 3 months they become the king or queen of discipline. Why? Because the system sees a black face as a person who’s supposed to help them meet their goals. But I don’t want to meet those goals; I want kids to feel free. I want those kids to feel what emancipation is like in those classrooms, to feel like they can be themselves, their culture to be expressed. Just a black face in the classroom helps the kids to connect, but it’s not enough if that black person feels their role is to be the enforcer of a white folk’s pedagogy.

While I worked hard on discipline in my classes, I wasn’t any sort of queen, though in retrospect I can see that I was expected to be. And I did specifically and very deliberately foster a sense of personal and cultural freedom in my classrooms. But one of the things that caused me great pain & cognitive dissonance in my years of teaching was the realization that as a black person, I was an anomaly and too small of a person to fix a system that is broken, and even more broken for children of color.

As one of a few black teachers in a white-majority district (teachers, not students), this meant a lot of day-to-day interactions where I was expected to perform blackness in ways that helped it fit into a particular narrative. Sometimes it was as the “discipline queen.” Sometimes other teachers called me “Girl” or “Diva.” Sometimes I got asked to sing at random (to be fair, I was a music teacher, but me singing while the rest of you eat lunch is a little much). I was constantly hounded for being too quiet. And sometimes the tokenism was more obvious.

One day an administrator came to my room. She said, “John’s* grandmother is in the office. She is accusing us of racism. I know you’ve documented problems with John when he visits your class. Will you come to the office and help us?” She pulled me right out of my classroom and away from my students, and I spent an hour in the office with John’s grandmother and some administrators and another teacher.

John, who was black, did act up in class, like many students did. John’s grandmother was, quite honestly, dirty and disheveled, and she was a spacey and not “all there.” But the first thing I did when I walked into that room was to smile at her, greet her, and shake her hand. The thing I noticed most was that I was the only person there who did that. No one else looked her in the eye and no one would touch her. Most of the others showed a nearly palpable condescension and disgust. Grandmother didn’t understand the school system, with its educational jargon and odd, arbitrary reward systems, and had trouble reading the reports the other teachers had given her. In fact, I don’t think she could read at all.

I wasn’t John’s main teacher, and I wasn’t given much time to speak. I knew why I was there. But I tried not to let my anger at being used as a token keep me from showing compassion to this woman, from trying to help in some small way.

After the meeting, I tried speaking to John’s main teacher, telling her the things his Grandmother didn’t understand, that a kind voice might be preferable to one full of frustration. But the teacher had been so frustrated with John, so tired of having to deal with his outbursts and behavior along with 29 other kids, several of whom had similar trouble (itself another failure of the system), that she didn’t seem to care anymore. When I saw John in my class, I always took the time to talk to him individually, even when it meant 29 other kids were hopping around. Some time later, John moved away, and I never saw him again.

Later in my teaching career I did all sorts of things to try to compensate for the futility I felt as a black teacher. I became a diversity trainer. I wrote sociologically about race and presented my articles to other teachers. I tried to speak up on behalf of my students when they were too quick to be judged by other teachers. And when I got the rare chance, I spoke frankly with my black students, and sometimes their parents, about the unfairness of the school discipline system and how, in its own sick way, it is a preparation for life as a black person in America.

On an implicit level, a subconscious level, the values taught to public school children are those of whiteness (not white supremacy, just whiteness), to the extent that in many cases, literally saying the word “black,” even when describing yourself, can be considered racist. These things shouldn’t be a surprise at all when you consider that the body of education is made up of white, middle class people (women), many of whom subscribe to colorblindness and genuinely don’t believe they are racist.

As I get used to my life as a non-teacher, I am still haunted by a pervasive sense of futility, and by the insidious expectation of “martyrism” that is woven into the profession. Every public school teacher carries these weights, and they are made heavier when you add racism.

Will I read the book? Maybe. Honestly, I’m still so exhausted that thinking about educational theory and reading a whole book detailing the racial failures of education might be too personal right now, because if you haven’t guessed it, I still take these failures personally. I think the biggest legacy of being a black person in a school system where there aren’t many others is that you are never enough to fix a broken system. It’s like I’ve internalized the “Hero Teacher” narrative.

If all that sounds like I need a therapist, well then, consider this my contribution to the personal-essay genre. There are many incidents where this came from, some that involve race and some that don’t, and I think what I most look forward to in writing them down is the idea that maybe I’ll connect with someone else recovering from these same things.

*Names changed, of course.

Movies About Slavery Are No Longer Revolutionary

I watched 12 Years a Slave, I saw the Color Purple, I watched The Butler but I couldn’t bring myself to watch The Help and I didn’t want to read the book, either.

We’ve just had the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and my fear is that the call for “more diversity” will mean more movies like those listed above. These stories absolutely need to be told and many of them, particularly 12 Years, are beautifully done. But if we want to use motion picture as a way to normalize Blackness, the problem needs to go beyond simple “diversity” and into solving the problem of “identity.”

These films haven’t helped race relations much lately, and one reason is because no one is required to identify with us in those films without attaching that identity to our race. (In fact, the only time we win Oscars is when we’re playing somebody’s #sassyblackfriend, criminals, “magical Negroes” or singers & dancers.) While they once represented a major step forward, they are not revolutionary. Mainstream America already knows us as slaves; they already know we can clean floors, they already know the surface notes of our sad and sordid oppressed history. And if I see one more romanticized lynching scene I might just run from the theater screaming.

When I get up in the morning, I don’t wake up, look at myself in the mirror, and break into a chorus of “We Shall Overcome” while speaking softly and sadly of how difficult my life is because I’m black. I get up, I take a shower, and take my dog for a walk. In other words, I’m a person; I’m not permanently downtrodden and I’m not someone’s sassy sidekick, although I have had people treat me that way.

I’m not talking about completely race-blind casting, where the heritage of the lead actor disappears. There are ways to incorporate a nod or two to the person’s culture without it being the subject of the entire movie, especially if the heritage of the person is not the central aspect of the story. Because guess what, I’m proud to be black! but it’s not the only thing I am. I’m a person.

And in case it wasn’t completely clear, I am not talking about abandoning all-Black or mostly-Black films — they are important stories that need to be told (even when they’re not directly about social justice, like The Best Man series or Love Jones). They just can’t be the only story anybody pays attention to, and it’s painful to me when the “best movie in years” is another story about downtrodden, oppressed-yet-heroic Black people. We are more than our suffering.

What would be revolutionary would be major, Blockbuster films where the principal identifying character is black. Where the generic “person” happens to be black. Can you imagine if The Martian had a lead actor who was black? What if films like The Revenant, Room, hell even 50 Shades of Gray had stars — main stars, not sidekick-stars — who were black? And if you can’t imagine re-watching your favorite blockbuster with a black star, well then… that’s exactly why we need them.

*Just as I was finishing this article the trailer for the new Ghostbusters was released, and my immediate reaction was to say, “Well, so much for extinguishing the sassy sidekick!” Because there is a sassy sidekick. And she is *sassy.* Via Twitter I also found this heartbreaking article about original Ghost Buster Ernie Hudson. The only thing keeping me from being even more pessimistic than I was when I began writing this is that I am not the only one upset about this disappointing return to the status quo:



Welcome to the SS Blog

Welcome to the Secret Sociologist blog — a space I created to write about the world and “think out loud.” Blog posts and views I express are not definitive; I’m a work in progress. I don’t have a formal degree in sociology but I have a longtime interest in the topic; in my real life I’m a former educator turned photographer. Civilized discourse is heartily welcomed.