*Note: This post deviates from my normal travel theme. The following words are my attempt to process my experience as a first year teacher in Baton Rouge.
My body starts to quake. My hands shake as my heart pumps the anger my mind has blocked off until this moment. The tears filling my eyes are uncontrollable and embarrassing. The people around me are confused. Why is she reacting this way? Woah, is she about to cry? I take two deep breaths to steady this unexpected rush of emotion before I respond to the question, “How was your first year of teaching?”.
Two months have passed since I finished my first year of teaching. Two months of the inability to express anything other than “I love my students” when asked about my year. Until this moment. It took two months, a different country, and a different language for the mental dam to break. My body must know. It must know I no longer need to survive. No longer must I keep the anger trapped inside like a caged tiger, and so it comes roaring, filling my body, clouding my eyes with rage. The injustices I witnessed forced on my students has built up in my body, but like a brainwashed captive I had remained silent.
My silence was not a conscious choice. In fact, I wanted to talk about my experiences as they were happening, and sometimes I did. However, for the most part the experiences, emotions, and anger overwhelmed me and built up in my body unable to release. As the year continued my body began to show the effects on my carried tension. My body began to sag, my laughter wain, my smile turned grey as the year continued on. I felt like an ant in the system of education when I wanted to be a bear.
I wanted to be a bear, but I didn’t know the rules of the game. All I knew was the overwhelming desire to protect my cubs. I wanted to scoop them up and carry them on my back to safety. I wanted to change the entire system in one day and when I realized how truly small my locus of control was, it almost broke me. I was just a teacher. An inexperienced, young, white teacher, and this wasn’t my community.
I entered my position as an outsider. A foreigner in the total sense of the word. New to the location, culture, and not reflecting the faces of the cubs I wished to shelter. Could I still serve? Would I even know how to? Would I be better off in some other place?
Doubt raked my mind and body. Do I know what I’m talking about? I’m so new, inexperienced. Am I just another white savior complex come to appease my personal guilt? I had no answer. I wanted to believe no. I wanted to believe my intentions where something more pure, but still I had no answer. I didn’t want to believe I was turning a blind eye to my flaws, but it was entirely too possible for me to ignore.
So I threw myself into my work, or maybe I had no choice. Teaching consumed me. I had come to help dismantle the wall known as educational inequality. However as the year grew, the wall seemed increasingly more immovable. I was beating my head against the wall, yet the only thing changing was the shape of my head and the state of my soul.
Inside I wept. Outside I fought for my survival. I fought for my students. I fought to create an environment where all students felt loved, accepted, and smart. I had to thrive in spite of my environment not because of it, and I continued to fight because at the end of the day my students always had it worse.
At the end of the day, no type of awful could erase my privilege. The privilege of a good education, and of parents who were able to provide, support, and guide me. I am white. My ancestors had not been enslaved. My history was not filled with trauma at the hands of other people, my people, as all of my students had. I never attended a middle school with over a 10% expulsion rate. I never had to endure an environment that utilized suspension as the only form of behavior correction. A place wielding suspension and intimidation as a weapon to silence the students.
By the end of the year the vice-principal, frantically trying to regain her illusion of control, began the school day with a litany of threats and negativity. “Nobody wants you here. You’ve already taken your tests. We have the S.W.A.T team ready, make one move, and we are going to put you out for the rest of the year.” At the time I felt paralyzed, too overwhelmed with my situation to find my voice. One of my students, however, did not. One day, during the daily rant, she raised her voice in her homeroom class, “ Nobody wants to listen to her” T stated. The result? Her ‘attitude’ was reported to the administration and her ‘insubordination’ resulted in a nine-day suspension. T received nine days because she had not yet allowed the school system to liberate her of her will, or her fight.
Through T’s suspension the realization of my privilege hit my square in the face. Could I still serve my students when I did not have a lived experience close to theirs? Again I had no answer, but I knew I could not walk away. I knew if there was a chance, even a small one, which I could contribute to the success of one of my students I would stand and fight.
My core screamed rebel, but quickly I realized my rebellion had to be quiet. I was an unexperienced outsider; this was not my space to take up. But I could not sit and do nothing.
My rebellion was quiet, but still present. I refused to go to my administration when there was a problem inside my classroom. I disobeyed direct orders to write referrals when necessary. My students were not, are not, criminals. I worked hard to build relationships with my students parents; without them I would have never survived, and I turned to my students to find strength.
When I looked in the eyes of my students I found the will to continue fighting. The intelligence I saw trapped inside, fighting to be free, the grit, determination, and the resiliency my students showed often brought me to tears.
I became the weird, “profe you embarrassin”‘ teacher. I stood cheering, loud, in the stands; even if that meant waking up Saturday at 7am. I yelled “look at my fantastic scholars coming to Spanish class today” down the hallway, much to the chagrin of my ‘too-cool’ eight graders. I took every opportunity I had showing them how much they meant to me, to the school. I did my best to hug, cheer, and tap them, trying to impart a vital message: they were important. They carried the power to change, control, and rebuild our current world.
However, as strong as my baby cubs are, they cannot survive this fight alone. And while the fight pulses in my veins, I still cry when asked about their future. It’s hard to believe their chances of survival, “thrival”, are high. The system is not set for their success. In fact, my students are expected to find success in a system that is actively set against them.
My middle schoolers live in a system that is built to watch them fail, and yet when my students try, and fail, this “failure” is contributed as a personal failure; personal weakness. All of a sudden the system is no longer a factor. A school of 520 students with over 3000 referrals (a rate equaling approximately 6 suspensions for EACH student) no longer had any influence on my student’s ability to navigate.
As I sat in my empty classroom at the end of the year, the ghosts of my students still lingering in the hallway, tears streamed down my face. Why is it that we believe in brain washing when is comes to kidnapped victims, but not for my students who have been kidnapped by our system? The system that repeatedly tells my students “they will not succeed.” “Their experiences are not important.” ” They are incapable.” ” They are statistics in a jail cell or a morgue. ”
If you think I’m exaggerating I can recall the time I heard an administrator tell a student he was a slave for you. Or the time a teacher told his students “you are the reason white people hate us”. If you still cling to the emotional need to blame exaggeration I challenge you to become a public school teacher. I implore you. We need more people who hold the truth in their hands. People who see how truly amazing my students are. People who assign the actions of one black body, to that black body, and not all black bodies.
We need more teachers who are able and truly educated, more who can no longer deny the systemic racism and inherent issues of our public system. We need more who chose to leave the screens of their phones and computers. More people who choose to walk the path of change, and less people sitting in their houses of all colors talking and judging.
And even if you fail, even if you do not have as much grit, determination, and resiliency as my students at least you will now know. Not everyone can be a teacher, but those who can’t teach, do, and you are important too. If you try and fail at least you have a slight idea of what poor, public schools are like.
I still struggle to answer “how was your first year of teaching”. How can I reduce the hardest year of my life down to a few complete sentences? Most people ask this question hoping for some light hearted, quick witted answer; something I cannot give. My emotions still rage with the utterance of that combination of words, and I still have yet to completely process all that has occurred.
Special thanks to Ms. Rachel Jackson for her edits, friendship, and support. Check out her out at www.rjwritingservices.wordpress.com