A Teacher’s Thoughts on the Spring Valley High Video

I awoke early on my first day, nervous but excited. After driving an hour through the beautiful rural North Carolina landscape dotted with countless tobacco fields and dilapidated old barns, I walked into one of the most intimidating situations I’ve ever been in. I was a fresh-faced, twenty-three year old white woman, determined to do something meaningful with my life. I was going to do more than strive for money and success. I was going to inspire young people.

I was going to teach high school mathematics.

To say that my students were unimpressed with their new teacher would be an understatement. I tried to make up for my inexperience by having loads of enthusiasm for my subject, but after several weeks of begging students to quiet down and give me their attention, I was starting to regret my decision. I have countless stories from that first year and almost all of them involve some variation of a student misbehaving in a small way, me asking him or her to stop, and the situation escalating to a full blown confrontation. I couldn’t maintain control of my classroom and the students knew it.

Twelve years later, I sit alone in my living room and watch the video of the young girl from Spring Valley High in Columbia, SC, being pulled out of her desk by a school police officer. I watch it over and over and over. I can’t get the image out of my mind. I don’t know what to say. It’s brutal. It’s inhuman. It’s indefensible.


While the massacre in Charleston earlier this year affected me deeply, this video has shaken me to the core.

As a high school teacher, I spend a ton of time with teenagers. I have the privilege of seeing them at their best and at their worst. I see the kid with ADHD who can barely sit still after lunch and I see the girl who just had a fight with her best friend. Teenagers are complex—they can be happy, frustrated, bored, sad, lonely, hyper, angry, insecure, and on and on. It’s no wonder that tempers flare at times, but what we can never forget is that they are children. They may look fully-grown, and heaven knows many of them think they are, but they are not.

FullSizeRender (1)FullSizeRender

Teaching is a messy business. Contrary to what most people think, teaching isn’t really about the content. It’s not about equations, or verbs, or parts of a cell. Teaching, or better yet, learning is about the exchange that happens between teacher and student. In order for that exchange to happen, there needs to be a relationship between teacher and student. Each needs to trust and respect the other. I didn’t understand that my first year (or three) and was constantly surprised at the behavior of my students. I expected them to sit quietly in their seats, obediently raise their hand when they had a question, and generally play the role of model students. Instead, my students were rowdy, unprepared for class, and wholly uninterested in algebra and geometry.

Around year four of my career, something clicked for me. I realized that my job—teaching mathematics to a room full of teenagers—isn’t actually about me. It isn’t about my wonderful lesson plans or my overall pass rate for end-of-course tests. Instead, my job is actually about my students. These incredibly complex teenagers who I spend so many of my waking hours with, are souls that have infinite value. They are not actors playing a scripted part, but instead are individuals with fears and dreams, insecurities and interests. They come into my classroom with a backstory that inevitably effects how they perceive and understand what happens inside that classroom. It is a privilege and a joy to cultivate a relationship with them that will allow us to go about the business of learning algebra and geometry.

I don’t know everything that happened in that classroom at Spring Valley High. There will no doubt be much speculation over the days and weeks to come about what the young girl did or didn’t do, what the teacher should have done, etc. I do know that there have been moments in my own teaching career that I would like a chance to do over. There have been times, while feeling frustrated, angry, and disrespected by a student, that I allowed my own response to escalate a situation. I know there was a better way to handle those moments and, thankfully, I have learned from those experiences. I hope and pray that all of us who work in education will remember that the students we stand in front of day in and day out are someone’s sons and daughters. They deserve our very best. Surely we can treat them with the respect and dignity we would want for our own children.

What I Have Learned About White Privilege

 

1402311_10152348851750448_6585834427330056188_o

When I walk into my classroom on the first day of school each year, I am always nervous. It’s not because I don’t know what to do or say, or because I am unsure if things will go well. I don’t know why I always have butterflies in my stomach, but maybe it’s because there are all these students sitting quietly in their seats, faces turned toward me, waiting for me to begin.

There is a palpable anticipation on their part and they are looking to me to set the tone for how our class will proceed. That first day, every student is new to me. And though they might have heard about me from older students and I might recognize some of them, this is the first time they are a student in my class. And it’s a little awkward. They don’t usually get my jokes that first day or realize that I am most comfortable when I’m being goofy. It takes us a little while to form into the class that we will eventually become. They have to learn about me and my quirks and I have to learn about them. But mostly, it takes us a while to really gel as a class because I have to earn their trust.

My first few years as a teacher, I didn’t understand that teaching was all about building a relationship with my students. Naively, I thought it was about lesson plans, grading papers, and classroom management. I eventually learned that what good teaching really comes down to is me going out of my way to show students that I am on their side, that I am for them and that I believe they can do the work. I must do this over and over and over. My first job is to “win them over;” after I’ve done that we can get down to the business of learning Geometry.

I used to think it was obvious that I was on their side… I’m their teacher! Of course I want my students to be successful, of course I will help them if they need it, of course I have time for them! But I teach high school mathematics. By the time students get to my class, they have already decided that they either like math or they H-A-T-E math. It then becomes my challenge to convince those students who feel uncomfortable and even a bit suspicious of me that I truly am on their side. I don’t have any control over my students’ past experiences that shape their views of mathematics. I have to take each student as he or she comes and many come with a history of feeling like an outsider in math class.

 ::

Somewhere along the way I realized that there is a very particular power dynamic that exists in a classroom between teacher and student. Not only am I the only adult in the classroom, but I am also the one that assigns work, controls their grade, and judges their behavior as acceptable or not. These are perfectly valid reasons for any student to be wary of me during the first few weeks of school; students who have had bad experiences in previous classes will be even more justified in wondering if I can be trusted. Am I the kind of teacher that is going to sigh deeply at them when they come in two minutes late? Am I going to make sure they feel my frustration when they sheepishly admit that they don’t have their homework… again? Even worse, am I going to shame them in front of others because they don’t understand a concept?

Because I am the teacher and I have the power, I have to be very careful with my words, my tone, my actions, and even my facial expressions. It’s up to me to show my students over and over that I can be trusted. I can’t just say it once and expect them to believe me. It will not do to simply assume that my students rightly interpret my subtle attempts to show them that I care. I must over-communicate my position that I am on their side and that I believe in them because, given their likely background, they will have a hard time trusting me. I first have to acknowledge that the power dynamic exists and then work within that construct to help my students flourish.

There are also power dynamics that exist in our larger culture. These range from obvious ones like the dynamic that exists between high wealth and low wealth groups, to more subtle ones like the tension that can exist between people who were born and raised in a place and those that are newcomers to that same area. And there are definite power dynamics that exist in our culture because of race, but this is one of those things the majority white culture doesn’t particularly want to acknowledge. I get it. By admitting that whites have a kind of privilege not enjoyed by minorities, it feels like I am happily identifying with my ancestors who took it for granted that they were privileged. It feels distasteful and, honestly, it makes me feel… dirty? It’s hard to explain the emotions that swirl around in my head/heart/stomach, but it feels similar to the nervousness I feel on the first day of school. I don’t want there to be a power dynamic and I certainly don’t want to benefit from it. It feels very uncomfortable to admit that I have some sort of “power” that is accessible to me simply because I am white.

But admitting that a power dynamic exists doesn’t mean that I am endorsing it.

And so, just as I’ve realized it is on me to show my students over and over that I can be trusted, it is on us, white folks, to show our minority friends, acquaintances and even strangers over and over that we can be trusted. It does not matter whether we want this power dynamic to exist–it’s there. Perhaps the first step in shifting the power dynamic is to look for it in our own lives and then work to elevate the voices of those around us who are often ignored. Perhaps we can begin to shift the balance of power in a significant way as we listen to one another and consciously decide that we are not content with how things are. Perhaps one day, the idea of white privilege will legitimately be a foreign concept to my children’s children.

I Will Not Stay Silent: A Southern White Woman’s Response to the Charleston Massacre

 

I have always willingly identified as a southerner. My mother is from Savannah, Georgia, my father is from Greenville, Mississippi and I grew up in various towns in Alabama. I am most at home when the humidity is above 80%, there’s a pitcher of sweet tea in the fridge, and folks stop by just to “visit.” Many people are surprised to hear that I’m from Alabama—I’m not sure why but maybe it’s because I don’t fit the stereotype that most people have. I don’t even know what the stereotype of a white woman in her 30’s from Alabama might be, but I think it probably includes a strong southern accent, a considerable lack of education, and cooking with lard, fatback, and streak-a-lean. Oh, and someone who stays in Alabama. Moving out of state to attend university gave me my first taste of the shock I would often encounter when meeting someone unfamiliar with folks from the Deep South. They are often genuinely surprised that we can be levelheaded, articulate, and sincere.

Yates Mill

But I am from the south and, until recently, thought I would live there forever. A year ago, my husband, two young boys, and I moved to Long Island, New York. We knew it would be an adjustment and there would be hard moments. We knew it would take a commitment on our part to hold ourselves here, to wait for things to get easier, to trust that the decision to leave home— to leave everything we’d ever known—was wise. And we were right. It has been incredibly difficult at times to be so far away from loved ones who know us and love us. It’s been hard to find our rhythm in an environment where the pace is much faster than anything we’ve ever experienced. It’s taken a conscious effort on our part to remember why we came in light of how homesick we’ve been. This past year has confirmed that I will probably always feel more at home in a place that is hot and muggy and where the people move slower because of it.

And yet… I am becoming painfully aware in the wake of last week’s massacre in Charleston, SC that much of what made up the air I breathed as a little white girl growing up in lower Alabama was revisionist history. The “South” that I love and have been desperately homesick for, doesn’t really exist. I have always known this on some level, but I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know the extent to which my ideas of home have been informed by things that just aren’t true. [1][2]

I’ve long been disabused of any idea that the Civil War was really about states’ rights or that the Confederate flag has any business being anywhere but a museum [3], but I can’t escape the fact that my very experience has been that of a privileged white woman. [4] And I can’t escape the fact that most of my friends are privileged white women. Amazing women. Gospel-loving women. And we have the privilege of going to church on Wednesday night without the fear that someone will gun us down because we are white. There is no flag flying high above a government building that symbolizes the hatred people had for my ancestors. The very fact that we can post on Facebook about puppies, vacations, and funny jokes in the days after the Charleston Massacre means that we have no idea what our African-American brothers and sisters are experiencing. [5]

I was born in 1979, just fifteen years after the Civil Rights Act was passed. Fifteen years. How can I think that the south I was born into and interacted with as a little girl was so very different than the south that tore itself apart in the 1950’s and 1960’s?

I think the problem white people in my generation have with understanding race issues is that we see it as taking place a lifetime ago, long before we were born. My mother tells me about a time in the 1950’s when they didn’t have a television, when she was required to wear either a skirt or a dress to work in the 1960’s, and about the first microwave they bought in the 1970’s. There is a vast gulf between her childhood and mine. Her history seems far away, so separated from our society today. The videos I’ve watched of the protests, marches, and speeches from the Civil Rights Movement seem to be from a different time, much like Armstrong’s walk on the moon seems to have more in common with the invention of the automobile than with my daily experience. And though my father went to the University of Mississippi in the 1960’s around the same time as James Meredith, I often forget that particular part of his history. I forget that the man who raised me was raised in Greenville, MS in the 1950’s.

I forget because my parents are wonderfully loving people who tried very hard to raise their children to see everyone as equal. They talked often about making friends with people of all races and set examples for us in their own lives. They didn’t, however, talk much about the reason it was so important to intentionally treat everyone as equal. They left it up to the schools to teach us about the Civil Rights Movement in that very sterile way textbooks teach everything—I certainly never read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in school. [6] My parents and many other white parents didn’t talk to their children about the things they must have witnessed in their schools, on the buses, at water fountains. I know that living through the Civil Rights Movement in the south impacted my parents and I know the collective history of the south is one that must be painful to them and others like them. Therefore, like many other whites from that time, they didn’t talk to their children about their true, painful, bloody history. And so, our history— our heritage— didn’t become real to us. Instead, we were left to parse together a romanticized version that leaves us feeling incredibly defensive whenever someone comes along and challenges our love of home. [7]

I know some of my white friends will be frustrated with me after reading this, and that’s okay. We have a shared history of silence when it comes to discussing difficult things. Race, poverty, and injustice—these are things that polite southern ladies don’t often enter into discussions about. [8] As my mama always said, “Honey, don’t stir the stink ‘cause it’ll just make it stronger.” Perhaps we don’t discuss these issues because we don’t know how to begin. Or because we are afraid of doing it wrong and making things worse. Or because we haven’t seen it modeled for us by our mothers and grandmothers. But I don’t want to stay silent any longer. I want to be part of the discussion. Mostly, I want to listen to my African-American brothers and sisters and learn about their experiences. I want my African-American students, along with all my students of color, to know that although I have not had their same experiences, I stand with them. [9]

I won’t remain silent any longer. Even if I mess up in my attempts to understand, I trust that my African-American brothers and sisters will be gracious with me and help me. The only way I know to start the process of reconciliation is on a personal level— through conversation. And so I am beginning. Will you join me?

 ::

[1] Article on “Lost Cause” narrative, John Price, https://medium.com/@thejohnprice/yes-you-re-a-racist-and-a-traitor-6c4bb12c5b63

[2] What this Cruel War was Over, Ta-Nehisi Coates, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/

[3] The Cross and the Confederate Flag, Russell Moore, http://www.russellmoore.com/2015/06/19/the-cross-and-the-confederate-flag/

[4] White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh, http://amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html

[5] Eugene Scott quote on Facebook: What must it be like to live a life where the ‪#‎CharlestonShooting seems so irrelevant to your daily life that you can remain silent?

[6] Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., Justin Taylor (notes and outline) http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2015/06/18/martin-luther-king-jr-letter-from-birmingham-jail-the-complete-text-and-an-outline/

[7] White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism, Robert DiAngelo, http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism-twlm/

[8] I am very aware that the reason we don’t enter into these conversations is because we don’t have to. It’s another example of white privilege.

[9] Charleston and Teaching Children, Chris Lehmann, http://practicaltheory.org/blog/2015/06/18/charleston-and-teaching-children/