When I was teaching incarcerated minors or kids in rehab my class was always predominantly minority. And the teachers were always predominantly white. Does this make a difference? Yup. Race perceptions are alive and well in America’s youth, particularly America’s disenfranchised youth.
Let me start by telling you that I am a pale blue eyed woman that generally looks younger than my age. Over the decade or so working with my kids I’ve had many conversations with them. They assume that I am white and therefore grew up “rich” or at least middle-class and knew no childhood pain. They start with a wall up. They start with not trusting me, this woman who *clearly* has nothing in common with them, no possibility of understanding them.
Once, back in New York, my mother came to pick me up at school. My classroom of girls saw her and said, “that can’t be your mom. She’s so dark.” I reminded them that I had already told them my mom was half-puerto rican. They were stunned. By this point my kids already liked me, well, most of them, but realization that my mom was dark skinned and my grandmother spoke spanish natively opened up a new level of innate respect for me. I was one of them. That goes a long way with my kids.
Since then I tell new classes about my tenuous connection to them sooner, since it opens this door. Does it really make me more like them? Not really, but it forges the beginning of a relationship that I can open further so that they can spend more of their energy learning from me instead of fighting the great war of us versus them that they have fought for so long.
I’m not above using my genealogy and history as a way to get my students to open up. By the time they get to me they have often given up on themselves and have settled into the believe that they are “stupid” and will never learn anything. If telling them that I have similarities to them and wearing sleeves short enough to show off my tattoos helps them settle back into the role of student that society has stolen from them, I’m totally going to use it to help the classroom. To them this shared background means understanding, means I get “it” to some degree, even if they have to peer under the surface to see me in this light. And then I get to see beneath the “thug” surface so many of them have cultivated for years and find the great kids hiding in there.
This was written for Live Journal Idol Exhibit B. This week is an intersection with meepalicious Please read it too http://meepalicious.livejournal.com/