Written by Daniel Fox
My life has been feeling overwhelming recently. It makes me think about what we need to do to really support the kids in our increasingly diverse and segregated city schools who are going through things often objectively harder and newer to them than the busy-ness, pressures, and losses I have been facing as a white, college educated support staff. I’ve also been trying to think through an important question raised by Lisa Delpit: what does it mean to raise “other peoples’ children”, and how does this affect what we, as educators, do in our schools?
For me this question of race showed up in a real way in my senior year of high school, when me and my fellow students began to talk about what was then called the “achievement gap”. In a brief, painful reflection, it became clear that we as students–and teachers–knew that certain students were slated to go to prison, others to state schools, and others to fancy colleges. And not only did we all seem to know this tracking process at hauntingly early ages—five? ten?—but somehow this knowledge didn’t change anything. There seemed to be “nothing we could do”. I’m sure that teachers and students were not the only ones haunted by these seemingly pre-written scripts. Who could feel this harder and more painfully than parents? Raising a child yet feeling powerless to change the trajectory of their son or daughter in a brutal system beyond your control. You see and hear parents trying, or being told, to do all sorts of things in this situation. Discipline your children. Change schools. Send them to live with relatives in Iowa for the summer or forever. Get them into sports. Eliminate their freedom. Show them they are loved.
After all, if we can see something coming, why can’t we change it? What prevents us from doing so? What are we holding onto that prevents us from seeing what causes this problem? And how is it that we’ve convinced ourselves that the way we are currently doing school is so sacred that we can’t reconsider it to save the lives of the lovely little (and big) children we see everyday? Or why do we believe so little in our own power?
This gets me back to a line of thought I’ve been exploring a lot recently, the ways in which our schools are or are not providing opportunities for our children. Because if we have an opportunity gap not an achievement gap–if the problem is not that students can’t achieve but don’t have sufficient opportunities to learn–we need to be talking about the opportunities we can create. Because if our schools do not help and even contribute to the ways in which working class and youth of color are distanced from and shamed of their own cultural and language practices, pushed out into the streets and into low-wage work, and more, then we need to reconsider what schools are and do. We might even define a real opportunity–what we need to be providing–as something that is actually able to alter a life slated for disposession.
It is here where what our kids are going through isallowed to become mysterious, natural, something that we cannot understand. Something we can not teach about, or fight. Or we blame parents, or hide it with the rhetoric of “no excuses”. A friend of mine recently told me that “resilience is what white people tell us [people of color] when they describe how we survive what they couldn’t, or what no person should be expected to survive.” If our society is setting up some people not to survive, or in any case not to live, we should not accept this. Yet it seems like that is what schools, and maybe therefore, what we as educators do? It is here where Lisa Delpit’s calls for “culturally relevant curriculum” and push for aligning teaching with social change movements seem important.
Doing so should force us to recognize not only our common humanity but also our real differences in position. For example, if I had grown up in the neighborhood that I now live, half of my friends–based on what they did in my white middle class neighborhood with its middle class risks–would now be in prison. How we as educators are not providing charity for ‘poor underserved children’ but working with the children of our village who we need to succeed for our village to prosper. Children who are ours, but are not ours, children facing challenges different from many of us working in their schools and who are processed by the system differently. Yet they are still our children. This is why it is so painful to me to see how we get pushed into justifying approaches of a system that is not working, or demanding that students “just do” the increasingly standard, monotonous curriculum that is enforced disproportionately on working class students. When we do this I fear it is we who are dehumanizing them to defend something not worth defending.
As Malcolm X says it is “a system that crushes people then blames them for not being able to carry the weight”. Do we really believe that is what our children should expect out of life? Is that really what we want for our or others’ children? We should talk about what is happening. We should teach against this. Organize. Fight. And while this is scary, I think what is scariest is the reality that I keep coming back to — that really supporting our students requires a deeper questioning, a deeper antagonism, a deeper need for revolution than most of us allow ourselves to feel or embody. Is the fear that we don’t have the power to do so, or that we do indeed have the power, yet are afraid of it? Regardless, fear remains the opposite of education.
It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a community struggling together for children, for each other, and against the daily oppressions we face unequally in this racist capitalist system to create quality schools. We as a community work in these schools, we inhabit them, we pay for them. We as a community have the power to change them.