Friday, July 27, 2012

Ain't No White Kids

I went to the Big Brother Big Sisters picnic with my Little Sister a few weeks ago.  I want to say right away that I love this organization and think it serves a very needed purpose, especially for boys who often have no strong (or really any) male figures in their lives.  But I did notice one thing that disturbed me.  Not something about the organization, but rather about the demographics and socio-economic status in the area: almost all the mentors (the "Bigs") were white or Asian, while almost all the children (the "Littles") and families were black or Latino.  This was not without exception, but was true of the vast majority of the people there.

It reminded me of my first year teaching, when I was brand-new to the area, and still fairly naive about the racism and segregation that was (and is) present.  I started teaching in January of 2000, so I was trying to get to know the students at a time of year when most teachers can tell you more about their students than the computer database can. 

One of the projects we did that first week was a first grade-wide "I have a dream speech" for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday.  I was trying to explain the bus boycott and segregation in general to first graders, which is no easy task.  At one point, I think I oversimplified and said something like, "He helped make it so black kids and white kids could go to school together."

I didn't know why the kids were looking at me so incredulously until one little girl spoke up.  "But, teacher, black kids don't go to school with white kids."  All the kids agreed with her.  That's when it dawned on me that she was right.  There was not one single white child at that school.*

Another time, I overheard a conversation that I mentioned here.  

First student: There are three kinds of kids.

Me: What are the three kinds of kids?

First student: There's black kids, Chinese kids**, and Mexican kids***.

Second student: What about white kids?

First student: Silly, there's no white kids. There's only white teachers.

I've been thinking about this for 13 years now and I'm still not sure how to respond to it.  My Little Sister is very intelligent and very observant.  I'm sure she noticed the demographics of the picnic and I'm sure she's noticed the demographics of her school.  How do I explain that to her?  Or do I just do what we all mostly do and try to pretend this inequality doesn't exist?  I don't feel like that's the best way but I haven't really thought of a better one yet.

*There were two white kids once; they were Bosnian refugees.

**In first grade, to these kids, all Asians are Chinese. The funny thing is that I don't think any of the Asian kids at the school were actually Chinese. Cambodian, Tongan, Samoan, Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong... but not Chinese.

***In first grade, to these kids, all Latinos are Mexican. They were mostly Mexican, but there were also Guatemalans, Salvadorians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, etc.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


The best principal I ever had (and I had quite a few) had a novel idea when it came to children who were being discipline problems.  She urged her teachers to realize that there was a reason for their behavior.  She wasn't condoning fights, disrespect, or any other of the myriad behavior problems we dealt with on a daily basis, but just pointing out that there are reasons behind their behavior.  She explained further by saying, "Many of these kids have been through things that none of you can even imagine."  That has always stuck with me.

It's easy as a teacher to say thoughtless things like "I don't know why you do this," or "You should be ashamed of yourself," or "Why can't you be good."  Some teachers try to be aware and compassionate and avoid things like this, while others are so frustrated/uncomfortable/unhappy/afraid that they don't try any more and just yell at kids about being stupid and bad (I've worked next door to some of those teachers).

This is what got me to create the feelings paper that I've talked about, although I wish I had done it earlier, and I've certainly been guilty of just reacting.  Having kids look at why they are reacting the way they are is invaluable - you get an insight into them and, more importantly, the child takes a moment to think about what's going on, making them less of a prisoner to their feelings. 

That is why I liked this article so much. 
The kid was ready. Ready, man! For an anger blast to his face….”How could you do that?” “What’s wrong with you?”…and for the big boot out of school. But he was NOT ready for kindness.
Obviously, they picked one of the better reactions to document, and some teenagers would ridicule anyone who asked them anything about their feelings.  But if you look at the suspension statistics, it seems to work.  Imagine that.  Not reacting in anger but trying to figure out the root cause of behavior. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Connections to Tragedy

A teenager was killed in Oakland last week.  It made the news - as most homicide victims of that age do - but not for long.  It was one of seven murders in seven days, with the victims ranging in age from 15 to 84 years old.  Six out of the seven homicides happened in East Oakland, where I used to teach.

Hadari was a friend to several of my former students who I'm still in touch with.  He was also related to my 9-year old "Little Sister."  She told me this, adding that she had no feelings about it and didn't want to talk about it.  Ever.  I don't know the reason behind the killing, and I'm not sure it matters.  The consequences are the same.

I've been facing these situations since I started teaching 13 years ago and I still don't know how to deal with them in the best way.  For eight years, I taught in what is the most violent neighborhood in Oakland.  Most years, the majority of the kids in my class knew someone personally who had been murdered.  All of them knew of someone who had been killed.  Far too many of them had actually seen someone shot.  There were so many of these situations that I don't remember most of them, but  few stand out.

My second year of teaching, one of my third-graders saw her cousin (a teenager) shot in the face by a rival gang member outside their apartment complex.  She came to school the next day because there wasn't a better option.  She spent the whole day shaking uncontrollably and I had no idea what to do about it.  Of course, we didn't have a counselor at the school to help out.

About four years into teaching at that school, one of my students' dad was killed.  He was stabbed to death in his apartment.  The student, who didn't live with his dad, but visited him often, came to school and never mentioned one word about it.  I think there were two sentences about it in the newspaper.

In my second-to-last year teaching there, we were reading a story about a cowboy who owed some people money and got out of it by playing dead and scaring the debt collectors.  The reading program we had emphasized making connections — connecting real life events to what happened in the story.  One of my students told me that the connection he had was that his uncle was killed that weekend, in broad daylight, by someone trying to collect on a debt.  Not the sort of connection you want to hear in third grade.

I still have no idea what to do when a kid loses someone to a violent death.  It's easy to get complacent and start thinking of it as "normal," while of course, it's a tragedy every time.  I'd like to end this with some kind of call to action, but I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what can be done.  None.  At all.  Totally at a loss.

By the way, for those of you who know me and are worried about my safety, here are some disturbing statistics.

Oakland is 28% black and 34.5% white.
Homicide victims in Oakland are 77% black and 3.2% white.

There's a tiny bit of inequality here.  I'm benefiting from the inequality, which doesn't making it any less wrong.