There are some things that you just never forget. Your first day as a teacher is one of them. My first day was in a junior high school in the South Bronx which was then (and now) the poorest congressional district in the country. I taught in what was considered the “worst district” in the Bronx in the “worst” middle school. It was the bottom of the bottom of the bottom, or so they said.
That First Day
My first day was staff development day. I had to attend various sessions like everyone else but, as the new teacher that year, I also had to pick up my keys and set up my classroom. As soon as I opened the classroom door, a rat the size of a terrier dog ran across the room and behind the coat closet. I was horrified (I don’t do rodents, insects, OR snakes!) but for some reason, I didn’t flinch. I moved the coat closet and saw a hole the size of a dinner platter in the wall. I went outside to the public pay phone, called my father to ask him the easiest way to plug up a hole in the wall (without needing sheetrock), went to the local hardware store, and bought steel wool, chicken wire, and plaster (I also bought roach spray since I have always seen roaches and rats travel in pairs). The local hardware store owner did not recognize me and so I introduced myself and my dilemma. He gave me a 50% discount on the materials and so I went back to my classroom and plugged holes. I had seen enough at my interview and the “teacher development” sessions to know that no one there would help or care.
After fixing holes in the walls, I started arranging students’ desks. My classroom was huge which I always like— it gives you more room to decorate: a science wall, a graf writing wall, a memoir wall, a history corner, a library with bean bags. There was room for ALL of that! I was ecstatic. There was a problem though. My roster of sixth graders who I would first see indicated 36 students. I only had 29 desks/chairs. I was, however, assured by the administration: “these students don’t come to school, you won’t need more chairs.” Sensing that the parents in the district didn’t trust us, I did what I saw and heard white suburban teachers do before school started. I called every home and introduced myself to whatever adult was taking care of the child on my roster. I told another teacher of my feat and she told me that I was crazy. I never made the mistake of telling her or her crew anything again.
This story I tell might sound like one of those Hollywood movies that pathologizes students of color in the hood and enshrines whiteness, but those stories get nothing right. I witnessed the violence inflicted on those students not as a white and/or privileged teacher driving in from her “safe” neighborhood with no real connections to or life experiences in communities of color; I experienced that violence alongside those kids, right on that first day of school, all because I needed 7 more seats in my classroom.
The Number 7
There was still time before school started, so I worked on my classroom each and every moment that the school building was open before the kids officially began. No one thought I needed more desks and chairs but since I insisted on making this request, I was told to go down to the second floor (classrooms were on floors 3-5) where there were extra desks and chairs lined up along the walls. I could get some exercise or put in a work-order that would take 1-2 weeks to fulfill, despite the fact that students were starting in less than 72 hours!
On one of my trips to this second floor, a white female administrator of some sort appeared. I no longer remember her title, just her face. She was yelling obscenities, but I really didn’t pay her any attention because I had stuff to do: I was carrying 7 chairs and 7 desks up and down a flight of stairs to my third floor classroom. As I was surveying the desk in front of me (did it wobble, could it be cleaned, etc), I realized she was yelling at me, screaming that I had better be gone by the time she reached me and the desks. I stepped away from the desks, asked her who the F–K she thought she was talkin to, promising her that I would stand right there and wait for her. She walked towards me very menacingly and I was ready for her, just like I was ready for that rat that I holed up. The newly appointed dean happened to see what was going down and raced over to us, yelling at this white woman: “she’s the new teacher, she’s the new teacher, leave her alone.” She looked confused and then just started laughing: “I thought you were one of the students. You don’t look a day past 16.” I wasn’t laughing though. Why on earth would any 16 year-old child in the South Bronx break into a school building (all doors were locked and only teachers were buzzed in) and steal them raggedy desks and busted chairs? And, more importantly, what on earth gave her the right to think she should and could talk to any child in this school or any part of the neighborhood this way? I said as much to her, insisting she had hit a lucky strike with the dean saving her from what she had coming. I was simply regarded as too sensitive and offensive— a kind of over-reactionary, Black Nationalist-styled militant. My credentials, abilities, skills never mattered there… I looked like the people in the neighborhood, I AM the people in that neighborhood, and was criminalized alongside them. Sensitive and offensive? So those were the new words for us, huh?
Same Rats, New Holes
7 is a number I will always remember, not simply because of the desk situation, but because all 36 of my students showed up.
All I ever heard in that building was what the students could not or should not do. If it wasn’t one thing, it was another: their k-5 schools had been so horrible that they needed drills and drills ONLY; these kids didn’t value books so you should use textbooks/basals, not novels; these kids weren’t ready for project-based learning because they needed the basics; writing process theory and every other progressive educational theory (no one could actually articulate any of that though) was for suburban kids, because these kids only needed grammar worksheets; these kids couldn’t go on field trips because parents wouldn’t chaperone and/or they wouldn’t behave; these kids couldn’t learn about activist movements, social justice, or cultures/histories/languages of communities of color because they needed to see the “classics,” not themselves and the people in their neighborhoods.
I stayed most close to the Black and Puerto Rican teachers who were doing transformative stuff in their teaching and made sure not to let the main folk in that building know too much about me, what I do, or how I do it. I knew how all that white paternalism and racist pathology targeted my students and me and I wanted no proximity to it. My students did ALL of the things that they were not supposed to do. When the school year started, my 6th graders had tested as the bottom class; when it ended, they were the top… without a worksheet or drill in sight. My only regret is that I can’t go back in time: I would do even MORE of the things we weren’t supposed to do.
Now some 21 years later, I wish I could say that things look different in my life as a college teacher, but they don’t. Not at all. The only thing that is new is the way that our newest technologies figure into just another one of them things that racially subordinated, working class/working poor students supposedly should not and cannot do. Same rats, new holes.
The Current Divide: Savage Inequalities Continued…
In the 1990s, we talked about the Digital Divide as barriers to computer and technology access. Today, that talk has shifted to differences in kinds of access. Latin@s, for instance, lead the US embrace of mobile devices and African Americans lead the US embrace of Twitter. You’d be lying to yourself if you saw these groups on the fringe of new technologies and digital living.
I don’t mean to suggest that issues of access are not still prevalent. We know that fewer black and Latin@ students have broadband in their homes in comparison to white students, though the use of mobile phones begins to equalize this. Talented and committed teachers, however, have been using Facebook and platforms like teachers.io (which helps you make a homework app for your classes) to communicate with their mobile-savvy students. Principals in urban city-centers have teamed with companies to provide students with laptops. By 2000, we already saw Apple partnering with elementary schools in impoverished neighborhoods to provide students with laptops. Apple seems to eat this up since they can attract a new, young generation to Apple products. I counted 4-5 students in each of my three writing classes this fall whose high schools had exactly such a program. I suspect that number will continue to grow with each entering college freshman class.
The Digital Divide, as I experience it, has to do with how teachers and institutions postpone or altogether reject complex and/or current digital work for racially/economically subordinated groups. Once again, we have the thing that “these kids” can’t and shouldn’t do. Since they don’t have the “basic skills,” we need to give them that first and, coincidentally, all the time spent on them basic skills means they will never get beyond such levels of minimal competency. This is not simply my sense of things, but things said explicitly to me just this past school year. Like I said: same rats, new holes.
If it THIS threatening when students of color do CULTURALLY RELEVANT and sophisticated digital work in their 21st century classrooms, then you know it’s the right thing to do! If that means I am being sensitive and offensive all over again, then so be it.
When History Weighs In…
History gives us some important lessons here. I take us back to public higher education in the South, an outcome of Reconstruction, with the Morrill Land Grants Act first initiated in 1862 that awarded each state land-grants for higher education (at this time in history, African Americans mostly lived in the south). Black citizens formed part of the population base that was used to create the monetary formula for Morrill benefits. Each of the fourteen former slaveholding states established a black land grant college (the only colleges that Blacks were allowed to attend) that, in turn, made the state eligible for more grants. By 1900, the expenditures to white colleges exceeded those for black ones by a ratio of 26:1. This calculated impoverishment of the colleges black students attended didn’t stop there though. Black colleges weren’t allowed to use their funds to do liberal arts curricula; only white colleges could do that. Historical hindsight lets us see how wrong this was (well, it lets some of US see how wrong this was) but, at the time, the philosophers, theorists, scholars, and educators had a lofty discourse to justify these savage inequalities in access and opportunity: blacks needed basic skills to enter this unequal world; black students were too far behind in their educational access to catch up to white students’ college curriculum.
It should not take a huge leap to question this stated goal of offering blacks an equal education when procedures and curricular offerings deliberately prevented black college students from receiving the education that white students got. If that is obvious to us, then it seems we would question any person or system that uses these same rhetorics to deny access to our era’s newest educational technologies.
Many have made the tragic mistake of assuming that what the white officials saw and recorded when they came to visit these black classrooms funded through Morrill was what happened everyday.The Black teachers who were interested in social transformation had sophisticated political understandings into the criminal underfunding of their land-grant colleges. They critically understood that the ban on liberal arts curricula for black students was not for the purpose of learning but for the purpose of maintaining a racialized economic system under white supremacy. Despite the dangers and threats cast against them, they DID SOCIALLY TRANSFORMATIVE CURRICULUM AND INSTRUCTION ANYWAY!
Digital technologies are/will be the new battle for a progressive, transformative education for students of color. Like those black teachers more than 100 years ago who defied the white power structures that sought to miseducate their communities, we can stand on the right side of history too!
… learning western technology must not be the end of our understanding of the particular discipline we’re involved in. Most of that west shaped information is like mud and sand when you’re panning for gold!
The actual beginnings of our expression are post Western (just as they certainly are pre-western). It is only necessary that we arm ourselves with complete self knowledge; the whole technology (which is after all just expression of who ever) will change to reflect the essence of a freed people…
See everything fresh and “without form”–then make forms that will express us truthfully and totally and by this certainly free us eventually…
~Amir Baraka, “Technology & Ethos”