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?


All Politics, All the Time

Just in case you don't get enough political and social commentary in your life, I happened across some interesting sites last week:

The Field Negro. I warn you that it is not for the faint of heart, but I love it.

Stuff White People Like. Pretty darned funny.

Momocrats. Mothers' commentary on the Democratic party and politics.

Newscoma. Current event commentary from a journalist in northwest Tennessee.

The Soccer Mom Vote Political and Social Commentary from both sides of the aisle, all from mothers' and families' perspectives.