by Sydney Miller
“Oh, I’ve had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I’d have more of them. In fact, I’d try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.”
– Nadine Stair, 85, Louisville, Kentucky
Earlier this month, I saw a jazz show at Snug Harbor Bistro. Khari Allen introduced his band and an accompanying artist named Marcus Akinlana. As Khari and the New Creative Collective buzzed, strummed, and breathed the noises of their souls, Akinlana moved vibrant colors across black paper to imitate the movements of his heart and mind. I sat in a narrow wooden chair, lost in wonder. Whether my eyes were open or closed, my body seemed to beat, sway and absorb the art that seeped into every corner of the small room. An hour had passed when I came out of this coma and I silently thanked the artists and myself for allowing those moments to have taken place. I was present, and it was a gift.
Since leaving the classroom about a month ago, I have been working on enjoying moments and taking the time to pay attention to what is going on around me. I am trying to enjoy the process, whatever process that may be at a given time, and allow my mind to live in the present.
This has been difficult. In the world of charter education from which I have recently emerged, there is a trend of urgency. That urgency comes from investing in the idea that catching up in school is the answer to solving poverty or the key to more opportunity.
While there is an urgent fight to be had, it seems the charter model is running down the wrong path. Our country is not in a state of crisis because people are not performing well on standardized tests or being accepted into college; our country is in a state of crisis because the individuals who live within it are failing to appreciate moments, people and spaces. Service programs and charter schools are pursuing an abstract “cause” and forgetting to see and hear the individuals whom these systems are supposedly serving. A plethora of new teachers and schools have implanted themselves on sacred ground, and are yielding to the sole priority of higher test scores, while failing to appreciate the importance of a culture, unique to any other that our country has to offer.
While providing insufficient services, charters disenfranchise the communities they serve, profit from self-acclaimed successes, and fail to critically examine their methods to understand their failures. Holding test scores as a solution to poverty does nothing to empower oppressed communities. In fact, this practice often facilitates further oppression.
It was a Thursday afternoon staff meeting. Pale, tired faces gathered around in one seamless circle for announcements and "shout-outs" -- which were a regular part of our meetings, in an effort to raise morale. In the back corner of the cafeteria knelt Kevin, a tall, handsome young man in the senior class, and member of the football team. He crouched with one knee on a stool and one cleat on the ground, next to Jim, our school’s handyman. The two worked together to tighten and adjust Kevin's football helmet to fit. They alternated using the drill and stabilizing the table and helmet. I watched them working together from across the room, and noticed how their gestures, out of instinct, generously accommodated the other’s movements.
A few members of the staff became aware of their presence, and someone raised an accusatory finger in their direction. Our principal whipped her head around. As she realized their presence, she immediately demanded, “Jim, get him out!” Their working momentum broke like a brittle stick, and Kevin’s short dreadlocks rose to send a hurt and disturbed glare towards our circle. He took the helmet in two hands and slammed it against the surface of the table before turning to jam open a heavy door under a fluorescent red Exit sign.
As the door shut behind him, so did the school value of “Respect,” perfectly centered and stapled to red construction paper, mounted on the door with our common definition: “Treat others how you want to be treated.” The meeting proceeded.
One beautiful thing about teaching is that nearly every aspect of your life can be related back to your job. As one learns through experience, “best practices” can hopefully find a place in the classroom. Throughout the past year, I was intent on discovering how I learn best, trying to employ these same tactics for my students. I came to fairly obvious conclusions: I learn best in environments where I feel safe, appreciated, and respected. On the contrary, if I am rushed, or I can tell I am unappreciated or undervalued, my focus collapses into surface level thinking. This pattern held true for the students I worked with, and I can only assume for most other human beings.
At a number of the ever-proliferating charter schools in New Orleans, the school policies contradict their self-acclaimed value of “respect,” and in turn, inhibit the possibility for meaningful learning to take place. When students arrive at school and are told to be silent in hallways and cafeterias, they are being sent a clear message: the people in charge do not trust you and do not respect you. They are being told that whatever manner in which they naturally is exist and interact is inappropriate.
If their “low achieving” test scores are projected on Promethean Boards without context of the biases that produce these disparities, then students will continue to internalize the feeling that they are the problem. If a higher emphasis is placed on the absence of their black leather belt -- rather than their current mental state -- then students will begin to lose trust in the adults that are supposed to care for them. Furthermore, if students are surrounded by white teachers from privileged backgrounds, who have college degrees and who dictate the meaning of success, it might be conflicting for them to see a place for themselves in this sphere of elitists. They may also begin to wonder what is wrong with their people, that there are so few black teachers in an all black school.
A friend forwarded me an email about a course entitled Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (SEED) taking place at the United Teacher’s of New Orleans, and I enrolled. The space was starkly simple, especially in contrast with the complexity that filled the room once our sessions began. On the third session of SEED, as I sat in the now familiar navy, plastic chairs, atop the off-white linoleum floor, I listened to the soothing words of Davina Allen, our instructor. Around the circle sat people with faces of all colors and ages. Together in the room we read through Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Each person took a turn reading:
“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”
“2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.”
“3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.”
And the list goes on.
It was Katrena Ndang’s turn to read. She is 70, and was born and raised in New Orleans. White hairs threaded through her narrow dreadlocks, a few twisted gently in the back of her head, with the rest falling softly on her neck. Her beautiful hands held the paper and the side of the chair she sat on. Her reading glasses balanced at the bottom of her nose, and her eyes squinted down at the paper. When she read, her voice sounded worn and disenchanted, as though she had read these words 10,000 times before.
She breathed out a sigh, and a revelation came to fruition: She had read these words 10,000 times before. Based on her stories and insights she shared with the group, it seemed that Ms. Ndang has thought about race every day, for 70 years. She has never had the privilege, as I have, of picking and choosing the hours of her day when race, and everything that it has come to mean, would affect her and her loved ones. She has never had the choice to opt in or out of a fight for anti-racism. And that is what privilege is.
As Nadine Stair wisely pointed out in her old age, moments are meaningful when we stop looking so far ahead. When schools are too preoccupied with results, it is tempting to deny a reality that good teaching responds to the needs of those individuals who occupy the classroom. This set of needs cannot be prematurely predicted or determined. When a need for control and synchronization mutes the sincerity of moments, classrooms become oppressive for all parties involved.
In the spring of 2013, I turned down an offer to spend a second year at the charter school where I began my teaching career. I said no more to demerits, lazy leadership, and the assignment to design curricula for 10th graders who were already years behind grade level, and would further suffer from my lack of experience. I quit reading e-mails that began with “Team and Family,” and followed with a laundry list of senseless tasks that challenged me to prove my loyalty to children by grading hundreds of exit tickets and attending hours of professional development that taught me to read numbers instead of people. I said goodbye to a GoogleCal that is so full you forget to pick your head up and look around you to see the damage you might have caused towards people you care about.
September 2, 2013, I quit my second job. I was a double quitter. I said goodbye to school values bargained for monetary prizes so that students could buy Blow Pops if they showed respect to their oppressors. I said “see ya” to test prep after test prep, silent study hall and lunch detention. I said “no thanks” to revering a set of formalized control tactics as my guide to becoming a great teacher, and the skills of conformity to feign success. I said “peace out” to standing in circles that silently requested I do favors for people I did not trust in exchange for shout-outs. I put a rest to the habit of telling students to be powerful while giving them demerits for speaking at all. I stopped calling students "scholars" to fool them into thinking that their education system had not failed them miserably, and I stopped suspending students for a phone that slipped from their pocket, and a subsequent refusal to turn over what is rightfully theirs. I walked away from barking the acronym SPARK, so that the position of their bodies could feed directly into the assertion of my control.
I’m a quitter of damaging institutions and disingenuous moments. I am sorry for the students I turned my back on, and can only hope that my exit has validated a common sentiment that the school system they are subject to is unjust. One day, I’ll be strong and wise enough to help change these systems, but I’m not there yet. So for now, I’ll keep quitting.