Wednesday, March 5, 2008

No More Ms. Funny--At Least for Now

Foreword: I am having a blog personality crisis. I know that a lot of what I have written has been mommy oriented and most of my regular readers are other moms. However, I am just not feeling very inspired these days by typical mommy blog issues. More serious issues have been on my mind lately and I am going to go with them. I may lose some of you readers out there, I know, but I really started blogging for me, and therefore, I am going with my writing muse.

One issue that has been at the forefront for me recently is race and class. It is something that I have been thinking a lot about in both the macro and micro. It is a topic in which I have always been deeply interested, more interested in, really than anything else. If everyone has one central issue that is key to who they are, race and class issues are it for me. The subject of racism and class has informed every serious academic and professional choice I have made. I have studied in/lived in/worked in the African American community for almost all of my adult life. I feel more comfortable in the company of African Americans than I do with some groups of my fellow whites.

I don't like having to prove my beliefs by saying things like, "My best friend was black." That's is not at all what I am trying to do with this. But since many readers don't know me at all, I have to give a little background. I apologize if it seems like I am white-girl-trying-to-prove-how-down-she-is.

One thing that I have really been struggling with in my own life is my choice to go back to work in the fall.

I made the decision after college to pursue teaching because it is one way that I can directly impact the future of society. It allows me to immediately effect the lives of children, especially those at a disadvantage because of the color of their skin or their economic situation. Of course I love learning and kids and all that, but the real core reason I got into teaching is to work in those inner-city, African American schools. I want to do something to improve the lives of those kids.

My favorite students have been African American boys and in the urban, big city school I taught in, those boys were all poor. When I look at their faces, I see children who desperately want to succeed, but have already been beaten down by the world. They have been born into poverty, born into single parent or grandparent households. They have few role models and are immersed in a culture that has given up on education. It is so easy for these children to opt out. It is so easy for them to react to their situations with anger and rage. It is easy for them to give up, believing that they will never win the prize anyway. One of the few things that save some of these children is a caring adult who believes in them.

One of my favorite students was a 13 year old boy, Ronteze. He was a sad and angry young man, but underneath you could see a happy, funny kid who was holding on, just barely.

Ronteze lived with his mother, older sister and a assortment of "uncles." He often slept on the front porch of his house because there was no place for him inside. He had ready access to drugs and guns due to his mother's habits. He had learned violence at a young age at the hands of various family members and "uncles". He was not a bad kid, he just lived in a horrible situation and had not been given a real chance by anyone.

Ronteze was one of those students who the other teacher warned about. He was the one who the 5th grade teachers told us would make our lives miserable when he got to us. He was in and out of the office and suspensions.

Ronteze was first placed in another 6th grade team of teachers. I did not have him in any classes, but I saw him in the hall between classes. Since I gravitate towards kids like Ronteze, I made the decision to try to get to know him. I would speak to him in the hall between classes, smiling at him and maybe teasing him about something. Within a week, Ronteze was stopping by my room everyday just to say hi. I could have well been the only smiling face he saw each day and he craved the attention.

A few weeks into the school year, Ronteze was giving his teachers quite a hard time. One was a male teacher and Ronteze and he butted horns every day. The principal convened a meeting to discuss what to do with Ronteze. No one wanted him in their class. When I found out about the situation, I immediatly went to the principal and asked her to give me Ronteze. I told her that I had a good rapport with him and could handle him. At first she was reluctant. This was her first year at our school and I was a second year teacher, young and white. I knew she thought there was no way I could handle Ronteze, but she gave me the chance.

I went and got Ronteze out of his class and explained to him that he was joining my homeroom. I was affectionally stern with him and told him he would have to abide by the rules. I also told him that I expected the absolute best from him and that I would not tolerate anything but. Ronteze smiled and hung his head, embarrassed and happy.

The other students knew his history and were wary of him, but I was his fiercest defender. When he got into an altercation with another student, I backed him. The other student, a white boy who was involved in an Aryan gang, called him a nigger and shoved him up against a locker shouting racial slurs for no apparent reason and with no provocation, Ronteze somehow managed to restrain from punching him. He was fuming, fists clinched and eyes blazing, but he held back. The white boy's father wanted Ronteze suspended along with his child, but another teacher who witnessed the situation and I backed Ronteze and kept him out of trouble with the office. Secretly, the other teachers on the hall and I decided that if the white boy started anything else with Ronteze and called him nigger again and if Ronteze punched back, we were going to let them go at it for a little while because we knew Ronteze would kick the boy's ass.

Ronteze never gave me a minute's problem. I worked individually with him on his schoolwork and helped get him up to grade level. When he got in trouble in other classes, I was in the office talking to him about the choices he had made. I made him accountable for his actions, but let him know that I cared about him and wanted him to succeed.

After Ronteze, the principal put several other similar students in my room and like Ronteze, they became some of my favorites. These are the kids I want to teach.

My problem is that I have been offered a job here (we moved since I last taught) and the school is rural, upper-middle class and 96% white. It is an excellent school with a fantastic principal. I am struggling with the decision on whether I should take this job or whether I should try to get a position in one of the inner-city schools. I would rather teach in a poor, inner city school. My husband gets irritated with me for saying this because he says all kids need a teacher and that is correct. However, my whole reason for getting into teaching was to help those kids who need it the absolute most. My heart says I should go with what I love and hold out for another school. My head tells me that since I will be a novice at juggling work and children and that since this school seems really great, I should go with it and see what happens. I'm very torn.

By the way, I know some people would accuse me of suffering from white guilt. I'm not and I could explain why but this would get too long and too deep, but if it was, would it really matter? So what? If white guilt makes me work to improve the world, how is that a bad thing?



Anonymous said...

Your post warms my heart. I too am drawn to the outcast children because I very strongly believe that all children have enormous potential that can sometimes only be realized when someone mentors and believes in them. Every school, even in the whitest of upper-class communities, has its Rontezes. Does a "Ronteze-type" child have to be black? or poor? or from a tough home situation?

Maybe a true test of your compassion and love of teaching these misunderstood children would be to find them in the least likely of places?

Anonymous said...

Oh, and kudos for writing what's on your mind. It invites a more diverse audience that can appreciate you for more than just one aspect of your muse. :)

jennifer h said...

First, it's great that you're writing whatever is on your mind. I do that, too. I like to keep my readers guessing. :-)

Wow, this would be a tough decision. I could make a case for the fact that there are struggling kids in any socio-economic group, because that's true. I think the things you have to weigh are 1)how it affects your own family and your children, and how strongly your husband feels about whether this is a decision you should make together, and 2)how you might feel, years later, about your decision.

I don't know if that helps. Best of luck to you, and I hope we will hear more about this?

TC said...

Ah lets face it, you do have white guilt...but as you said thats another arguement and its not neccesarily a bad thing. You also have an incredibly good heart, which is a blessing. Remember also, I''ve got working class macho, so we all have our cross to bear. Its funny we are having the same discussions in our household but from a different angle. I think you just have to follow your heart and remember all children do need teaching. Sometimes we need to just play the hand we are dealt. I know you are deeply spiritual, maybe you have been offered the position for reaons you don't know. Maybe a higher power has lessons to teach you through the lessons you teach others. Or maybe I'm blabbering like some hippie. Trust your heart its a good one.

Jennilu said...

I substitue teach in a rural community outside Knoxville. We too have a majorly white population in our schools; however, a lot of the children still have many needs that do not get fulfilled at home and by the community. Until a few months ago we did not even have a Boys and Girls Club for them to go to after school. I'm sure that where ever you decide to go, the students will benefit from you being there. Afterall, that is what being an educator is all about.

Don Mills Diva said...

What a great post. You sound like a great teacher and the world needs more teachers like you. I would hold out for a school where you can make an impact - that's what drives you and you WILL make it work with your schedule if given the opportunity...

Missybw said...

Follow your heart... trite, overused, but still good advice. You're doing it with the blog, do it with your life.

holly said...

Newscoma referred me to this post because she knows what I'm going through teaching in a situation much like you describe. This post absolutely kicks my tail, and I want to thank you.

Rima said...

Oh, go with your heart! There are so few opportunities in this lifetime to do what we love and to make a tangible difference. And you are called to this work, it's clear. Now , if only there was one of you for every child like Ronteze . . .

richgold said...

White guilt? I had to laugh at that. I guess I've become too Canadian (immigrated here when I was younger).

I read your story with great interest. My sister-in-law moved back to the States and teaches at an inner city school. Your story gave me some insight into what she does.

My kids go to an inner city school with a whole lot of kids that come from socio-economic difficulties. (I guess a bunch are black too, I just don't think about things like that until my kid's classes start doing math projects looking at pie charts of how many kids have brown hair or brown eyes ... (the eldest too are both blonde with blue eyes and are usually the ONLY ONES in their class as such!) Anyway. I digress.

If I can pitch my two cents in - who is to say that the school you've been offered a job at won't have kids in difficulties? I'd love to send you my son. Though his father's household and mine are stable and well off by comparison to others in this neighborhood, he's a kid of divorce, has social skill and confidence issues and a learning disability that needs to be over come. He needs a chance with a teacher like you too (and not like the teacher he had last year who had nothing good to say about him, ever.)

To be very selfish for a moment, think about the impact on the entire family you could have by taking on a kid that teachers roll their eyes over. He doesn't have to be black or from an inner city, or a boy for that matter. S/he could just be a puppy-type of a kid who needs a positive roll model, some one to latch onto for a period of time, to look back and say "that teacher made a difference in my life". (I was lucky enough to have mine and her belief in me pulled me through some of the tough adolescence I surfed through.)

Good luck with your decision.

(BTW - I stumbled on one of your posts from another blog and loved your blog title so much that I had to come over and read. I like what you write about. I'm a Mom of four and like to think about Mom stuff and more stately/provincally issues too.)

holly said...

Hey again! Thanks for the comment on my blog. I'm in Dyersburg, but my heart is in Nashville :). I teach in a little town south of here. Unfortunately, if you read my blog, you probably will find more frustration than inspiration with the teaching profession--we're in the "hate" part of our love/hate relationship right now, but reading your words was very comforting to me and I will be back.

P.S. Only a fellow teacher would understand this little tidbit: when I was entering the word verification gobbledygook to leave my comment, part of the nonsense word was the letter combination SPI. Those things haunt me everywhere I go :).