Monday, February 11, 2019

A Different Perspective

(this is a photo of my classroom one year. Yes, that says "rape." No, the district did not come to repaint it until I threatened to do so myself. Yes, that means third-graders had to walk by "rape" on their classroom for weeks.)


I am fortunate in having stayed in touch with many of my students. They have provided me with positive feedback about the book I wrote about us: Literally Unbelievable: Stories from an East Oakland Classroom. It's been eye-opening to hear their perspective on their elementary school years now that they are grown. One of the most common things I hear is that I protected them from a lot of the issues when they were kids. I hope so. They deserved to be protected - much more than I ever could.

Since the book has been published, I have been able to talk to a few people who grew up in East Oakland, went to schools very near the one where I taught, and had parallel experiences to my students. If they had lived a few blocks east or west, they would have been at my school.

Their reactions have been even more interesting and frankly, it's been an honor to see. I met with a woman last week who went to elementary school near where I taught, just on the other side of the McDonald's in our neighborhood. I knew people who taught at this school and knew that it was very similar to our school.

We were talking about our experiences and I told her about what it was like to be a year-round school from the teacher's position. It is detailed in Literally Unbelievable but to summarize, the kids were divided into four tracks, by language, because there wasn't enough room for all of the students at once. I was telling her about how I had to teach in the auditorium and once in the auditorium lobby and she was remembering the places where she had to try to pay attention and how distracting it was to keep moving classrooms.

Then I told her about our four tracks: Track A was "other Asian" and was a sheltered English (ELL) track. Track B was English-only and we called it the "Black Track" which always bothered me but came from 100% of the students being Black. Track C was the Spanish-language track and Track D was the Vietnamese-language track. She stared at me. She said, "I was track B. This makes so much sense. The Black Track."

I went on to explain my concerns with the kids being racially segregated and how my principal brushed off my concerns with "We don't separate them by race, we separate them by language," but I could tell she was still processing.

It hit me. What would it be like as a Black woman to realize that you were literally in a segregated class and that your teachers may have referred to your group as the "Black Track."

The truth is that I have no idea. I still have white privilege in that I can be outraged about this, but I wasn't one of the kids involved.