The Former High School Teacher Reflects on College Teaching & Development

When I first started teaching college writing, I did so as a former high school teacher. I was told, both explicitly and implicitly, that I should not identify myself as a secondary teacher. College teaching was more intellectual and exacting; in fact, high school teaching wasn’t even respected enough to be called teaching, especially in university English departments. It was 1998; I was 27 years old and quite perplexed. I just couldn’t get my head around what people were telling me in comparison with what I was seeing at the college: the MOST horrible teaching and curriculum design I had ever encountered.

aolAt the time, Amazon was still relatively new as well as online bookstores. We were, after all, still using dial-up internet and AOL! This means that college bookstores actually ordered all of the books for students and created what were then called “course packets”— the binder that the bookstore created with the photocopied readings that you would use in the semester. That’s probably why I knew my readings and weekly course plans before a semester started… you HAD to back then. There was no possibility of finding a photocopy machine, emailing students in advance of class (not all had email), or using smartboard/electronic lecterns to share a new departure from the syllabus. At that college where I was told to never mention the fact of my high school teaching, I did what I had done as a college student: I went into the bookstore and looked at what every professor at the college assigned for the semester. That’s how I chose my college courses as an undergraduate student— who seemed to actually offer real learning based on what we would read? I remember that day at my new college teaching post very well. There was one professor on the whole campus who assigned a Toni Morrison book. I was THAT professor, the adjunct and former high school teacher supposedly so intellectually challenged by the curricular requirements of college learning and teaching that she was the only one who included Toni Morrison. If the classroom teaching and curriculum was bad, then the “official” faculty professional development was even WORSE!

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White Flight, Unspeakable Violence, and Continued Grieving (Sandy Hook School Shootings)

Like most people right now, I have had a knot in my stomach since last Friday when Adam Lanza, a 20-year old white male, shot and killed twenty small children at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut along with the six adults who tried to shield them.  It seems that some of those children had as many as 11 bullets ripped into their tiny bodies.  National grief, horror, and mourning are deeply palpable.  If I feel like the wind gets knocked out of me every time I hear about the murder of these children and witness more funeral preparations, then the grief of the families and this nearby town must be unspeakable.

Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 1.10.36 PMWhat is also palpable for me right now is the mainstream void of social analysis of the violence that our social organization inflicts.  Maybe, it is too soon.  Or maybe, we are still unable to really look at who we are and what we have created and so hide behind bourgeois sentimentalism.  E.M. Monroe’s blog posting at “Miles Away” came at just the right time for me.  Monroe reminds us of the history of violence against children with a photo of Sarah Collins, the one survivor who was in the bathroom when the bomb exploded and killed “4 Little Girls” at the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sunday, September 15, 1963 as the children were preparing for “Youth Day” services.  Schools were not closed afterwards and every black child of the era was forced to emotionally and psychologically move on as if nothing had happened to their peers.  Monroe tells us— even reminding us about Christopher Paul Curtis’s wonderful children’s novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963  that we have cultural and historical precedents that can guide us for how we must both heal and confront the world which we have created.  With the incessant cries that The Root recently chronicled of white people mourning their loss of power and voice in a social climate where a black man can now be president TWICE, the violence that we have now witnessed will only continue and compliment the violence that we have always allowed.

I can’t help but think about my own days teaching in New York City.  When I began teaching in 1993, bars on windows and full body metal detectors were quite normative.  When I taught junior high school in the Bronx, 11 and 12 year old children, I was required to always keep my classroom door shut and locked from the inside so that no one could enter without a master key.  Strangely, this was not done for the protection and safety of those children, young (and tiny) as they were; this was done based on a criminalization of those children, based on the violent marking of their very being as subhuman.  1980s and 1990s white flight into Newtown (and many other, new towns neighboring it), with entities like the FHA over-investing in their livelihood (while divesting in the brown and black city spaces where I taught), actually helped create the very conditions that I describe during my teaching.  These conditions merely replicated histories of places like Harlem in the 1920s, then the Black Mecca. When Black migrants from the Caribbean and Southern United States settled into New York City/Harlem, whites lobbied the politicians, bankers, and real estate agents to restrict them to designated black neighborhoods and schools only.  The cycle only continues given the huge losses brown and black peoples faced at the housing market crash and recession. If we see these kinds of divestments in people’s minds, bodies, and safety, then we can better understand exactly the kind of social violence we live in.  Violence has always been around us; Newtown was never exempt, safe, or innocent. And children and schools have always been caught right in the middle.  As “Sweet Honey in the Rock” proclaim here, it doesn’t matter where you’re living:

As simple as it may sound, we have never valued children’s lives.  Valuing only white children and not black and brown children IS violence.   Until we can realize this and act toward a new system, we can’t expect a social environment that will manifest real justice and protection for any children.