Taking Notes

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Dec 14 2011

How do you spell fired up?


I know I haven’t posted in a long time.  And there are only two days left of school for the year. And I leave the country in 3 days. And I haven’t packed. Or finished grading. I know there are a lot of good reasons why this probably isn’t the best time for me to be blogging… But sometimes you just gotta rant.

I read that “If I were a poor black kid” opinion piece on Forbes a few days ago. I half regret even putting a link to the article for author Gene Marks to keep strumming up more hits (and $) but if you’re a CM like me or even just a potential CM and you’re looking for something to get you fired up again about what we’re doing and why it might be worth a read.  Other than that the only possible value I can see someone getting out of reading that article is that people are talking about it on social media and this way you can decide which tweets and posts to retweet and comment on.

Anyways, those of you who know me know I was an English major in undergrad and that grammatical blunders of any sort make me very irritable sometimes to the point of interrupting even my best of friends in the middle of a poignant story to correct their grammar.  It is probably one of the most annoying things about me to others and definitely the most annoying thing about others to me.  I only say this because the first time I read the article I was so put off by so many of his “points” that I didn’t even notice that he repeatedly uses the phrase “If I was…” which to me is a grammar disaster similar in magnitude to the Bay of Pigs.

About 900 million people on the internet (rough figure) have posted responses deconstructing both the faulty logic and the layers upon layers of privilege in that article, many of whom are much better writers than me and most of whom probably have significantly more time on their hands to address the Forbes article point by point. So to save us all some time you can read their accounts.  There’s a one here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/louis-peitzman/if-i-were-a-middle-aged-w_b_1146790.html and a shorter one here: http://www.aviewfromthecave.com/2011/12/how-not-to-write-about-privilege.htmlutm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+AViewFromTheCave+%28A+View+From+The+Cave%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

but this one is the best and most poignant: http://www.good.is/post/an-ode-to-a-poor-black-kid-i-never-knew-how-forbes-gets-it-wrong/.

So instead I’m just going to detail the aspects of the article that make me personally, as a minority woman teaching the precise population Marks is referring to, want to vomit chunks of my own liver (*side note: one of the most frustrating parts of the article is that the audience he is ADDRESSING is very different and likely to actually buy into what he is saying).  I am going to use the term “poor black kid” because that is what was used in the original piece but I hope it will be understood that I am trying to speak much more generally about all of those affected by educational inequity which is not just a race issue and not just a poverty issue and not even a race and poverty issue because race is not discrete and poverty isn’t one single factor that occurs in isolation.

For one thing, as easy as it would be to label myself a minority woman (as I just did) that wouldn’t to justice to the amount of privilege I have had in my life.  To even begin to do that I would have to add that I am a non-black, non-latino, minority and that I am actually “half-white”- whatever that means.  I would also have to add that I am a heterosexual woman, with no visible physical impairments other than short stature, and no intellectual disabilities of the kind that would cause me to be discriminated against.  Perhaps most of all, I should include that I was raised in a two parent home, in which my parents’ combined income placed us in roughly the upper 10% of people in a country that is even in a poor economy one of the wealthiest on earth.  And I could even add that that home was on a street in an exceptionally safe and almost comically over-educated zip codes in the country (the % of people with the terminal degree in their field in my home town is comparable to the faculty at some colleges) and I attended a public high school consistently ranked as one of the best nationally.

But I was entitled enough to go to a really expensive and also nationally ranked private university, and lucky enough to come into contact with the kinds of professors, peers, and supervisors who challenged be to deconstruct and evaluate my own privilege.  Note that I use lucky to refer to a chance happening of which anyone would have had a more or less equal chance of stumbling into and entitled to refer to an opportunity to which I had disproportionately easy access to.

I confront my privilege almost daily in a number of different ways.  Everyday I see the juxtaposition between the education I received and the one that is available to my students.  I have listened to my fellow teachers, who make my same salary but are the primary financial provider for a family of four, talk about how they almost couldn’t afford to get their 4 year old son any of the birthday presents he wanted.

You can almost never recognize your own privilege without someone pointing it out.  That’s the nature of privilege.  It is an advantage so fundamental to your experience that you don’t even notice that it gives you an advantage and assume it is just normal.

I experienced a poignant example of this today.  There is a Filipina custodian at our school whom I respect immensely because she works tirelessly.  She works 3 jobs and whenever I try to apologize for my kids making a huge mess she always replies, “no mess, no job.” (As a point of comparison another custodian pulled me aside and yelled at me my first week of school when one of my kids tracked mud in from the playground because it made so much more work for him).  Anyways, I thought I had her in mind when, on a more experienced teacher’s advice, I filled the sand table in my classroom with rice because it is easier to clean up.  For whatever reason, we haven’t used the sand table this week, and today when she came in to clean she made a comment thanking me for not using the rice in the sand table anymore, basically stating that it hurt her heart to see food being used essentially as a toy because where she comes from people don’t have enough food and even wasting a single grain of rice gets you in trouble.  That I can conceive of using and often do use food products for any reason other than strictly nutritional purposes is an entitlement (albeit one shared by a huge number of people in the world) which hadn’t even occurred to me.

Coming to terms with my own entitlement has caused me tremendous guilt and anxiety but it has also forced me to grow constantly.   It has also allowed me to let go of a lot of the mindsets (myths) held by many people in positions of power in this country, mindsets that have subtly undermined any efforts in this country towards educational reform.

Unfortunately, Marks, who is in a position of power by virtue of the fact that his opinions are a published to the entire online readership of Forbes, has clearly not addressed his entitlement.  At best Marks is naive and misinformed and desperate to generate controversy (read: $) and at worst he is conscious of the implications of his article and deliberately is perpetuating inaccurate and actively harmful beliefs in a desperate attempt to generate controversy (read: $).

One thing that upsets me about the article is the suggestion that it is within a poor black kid’s locus of control whether or not he is able to attain comparable success to a wealthy white kid.  The article acknowledges that it would be more difficult for a poor black kid, but that acknowledgement is coupled with the delusion that “if only you work hard enough it is possible.”  On the surface this statement may seem like harmless optimism (and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I probably have thought and even uttered similar sentiments at some point in my life), but the real danger of such a sentiment is the implication made by it’s reversal: if you AREN’T successful it is because YOU didn’t work hard enough.

From the article: “If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently.   I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.”

I teach Kindergarten, which means it is my job to teach my kids the fundamental concepts of print and, oh yeah, I’m supposed to teach them HOW TO READ.  I am not exactly a master at my job yet, but unfortunately, teachers of my caliber and some who are much, much worse are the norm for most poor black kids.  The idea that the onus of making a commitment to learning to read should be placed on a five year old child and furthermore that it is even possible for a child to learn how to read just by making it their “#1 priority” is absolutely ridiculous.

Also Marks seems totally unaware of Maslow’s heirarchy- which basically states that unless your basic human needs are met, you don’t exert mental energy trying to solve higher level problems. Basically if you don’t have food, shelter, and physical safety, you are not going to be concerned with self actualization. We are biologically wired so that learning how to read could never be a #1 priority so long as access to food and safety are in question. In other words it is physically impossible for a child living in poverty to make education their number one priority.

I don’t really have a conclusion to my rant and I could probably continue to rant for at least 4-5 more paragraphs but I have to go figure out how to actually teach 22 5 year old’s how to read… which is a lot harder than writing about it.

(Okay that was a bit of a white lie to make a statement… this specific instance I’m actually leaving to bake cookies for my kids for the holidays.  But IN GENERAL these days I am trying to help end educational inequity in a very real way- not just by posting an indulgent, inaccurate, and inflammatory article on Forbes. com.  For those of you considering TFA… know that it feels really good to be able to say that and it will feel even better when I have the results to back it.)

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