Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It's not what you know it's who you know

I used to have a coworker, Christina.  We were hired for the same department the same year.  I think in our first semester of being teachers together I subbed for her one period.  That is a common thing for teachers to do.  For things like doctors appointments, it's easier than finding someone outside the school.  You generally don't get extra pay for it, but the goodwill is huge.

We were both still learning how to put together curriculum and we had very different styles.  She was going from the textbook.  I never checked the textbook out of the book room.  I ran my classroom as close to a college class as I could get away with.  I followed the state standards for educational guidelines, here let's look at one set as an example (these are the official standards for the state of California):

WRITING (Grades 11 & 12)
1.0  Writing Strategies
Students write coherent and focused texts that convey a well-defined perspective
and tightly reasoned argument. The writing demonstrates students’ awareness of the
audience and purpose and progression through the stages of the writing process.
Organization and Focus
1.1  Demonstrate an understanding of the elements of discourse (e.g., purpose, speaker,
audience, form) when completing narrative, expository, persuasive, or descriptive
writing assignments.
1.2  Use point of view, characterization, style (e.g., use of irony), and related elements for specific rhetorical and aesthetic purposes.
1.3  Structure ideas and arguments in a sustained, persuasive, and sophisticated way and support them with precise and relevant examples.
1.4  Enhance meaning by employing rhetorical devices, including the extended use of paral­lelism, repetition, and analogy; the incorporation of visual aids (e.g., graphs, tables, pictures); and the issuance of a call for action.
1.5  Use language in natural, fresh, and vivid ways to establish a specific tone.
Research and Technology
1.6  Develop presentations by using clear research questions and creative and critical research strategies (e.g., field studies, oral histories, interviews, experiments, electronic sources).
1.7  Use systematic strategies to organize and record information (e.g., anecdotal scripting,
annotated bibliographies).
1.8  Integrate databases, graphics, and spreadsheets into word-processed documents.
Evaluation and Revision
1.9  Revise text to highlight the individual voice, improve sentence variety and style, and
enhance subtlety of meaning and tone in ways that are consistent with the purpose, audience, and genre.

To me there is no part of that needs to include dead white guys or boring work sheets.  I want to talk about controversial books, stories, songs, news articles.  Ok, some of the dead white guys are ok.  I am a big fan of Mark Twain.  I really enjoyed teaching Huckleberry Finn even though I'm sure I wasn't PC.  I made ever white kid in the class read aloud until they could stop stuttering when they said nigger.  It's just a word.  Then the black kids spontaneously decided to talk about how it felt.  There were fewer jokes after that day.

Anyway, Christina.  When I subbed for her I made fun of the poem we were reading from the textbook. I did it reflexively.  I did it because I had an instinctive hatred of the textbook.  Of course word got back to Christina.  She was cold to me for years rather than tell me that what I did was unprofessional.  In the week or two before I quit I came into the break room.  She was sitting there alone.  I sat across the table from her and I said, "I feel that I must have wronged you.  I'm not sure what I did.  But you've been very angry with me for a long time and I was hoping you would tell me why."  She tried to deflect me.  Naw, she's got no problem.  Then I told her the story I just wrote.  I got to the end and I said I was sorry that I poisoned the well when I was an insecure new teacher.  I did it because I was trying to bolster my sense of myself and in the process I damaged hers and that makes me a bully.  I'm sorry.  She cried.

She told me it was hard to keep hating me because I said things that were so funny and then she got mad at herself for laughing because she was supposed to dislike me.  I told her I understand.  People often feel that way about me.

Like they are supposed to dislike me, but they don't and they aren't sure why.  I've been told that more times than I care to recall.

Yesterday we had our first visit from a housekeeper/babysitter person.  She's young and in college.  She's not white.  The things she has mentioned so far make my heart beat faster.  She was turned out at 13.  She has been homeless for most of the time since.  She made it through DeVry under extremely suboptimal conditions because she wants to be a Systems Administrator.

Some of the things she said remind me strongly of Christina, who was also not white and from a less than privileged background.  It's a specific quality.  If I follow the textbook I will be doing it right.  I have to do what the textbook says.  They are both climbing the ladder by doing things right.  I have always known that there must be an easier way.  And because I was white and I lived in Los Gatos and I was invited into the homes of very rich people and I got to listen to the way they just randomly talk around the house...

Yeah, it's different.  My family taught me I had to conform and be like other people.  A very firm caste system, if you will.  I had to be who I was born to be.  My circumstances of birth should have dictated my actions.  But you see, I have always been able to find the ability to 'pass' around people of higher social class for at least a little while.  I can't maintain it for long and it feels like incredible strain.  But all those bits and pieces and glimpses have shown me that the people who make it really far are people who believe that their circumstance of birth are irrelevant to their potential.  They simply have a larger hunger than that.

Christina and the housekeeper and me are all hungry in that way.  We want something more.  This is very common.  I'm hitting writers block because I feel like I want to say something that sounds bad or mean, but it's still true.  I'm paralyzed with fear.

Ok.  I think that Christina and D (chick from yesterday) are afraid to go off book because otherwise they would have to start making up their own path.  They have never been encouraged to do so.  Everything in their lives has pushed them into a fairly narrow walkway for "success" but neither is going to actually reach success that way.

This is my big judgmental mouth here.  This is hard to admit out loud that I think.  Ok.  I feel like they both need to go off book.  If you are always afraid of failing you never commit yourself foolhardily to the most important decisions.

I called the Sheriff's department and reported my father and had everything set, done, rolling before my mother got home from work.  I knew that if I talked to her she would try to talk me out of making waves.  I was just imagining things.  According to my mother nothing was that bad; there was nothing to report.

I think that Christina needs to learn to stick up for herself and tell coworkers, "What you did was unprofessional and rude" because she needs to learn that she's worth that.  It will make her a better teacher.  I think D should find a way to live and breathe Sys Admin shit for a few months in someones garage and not bother with DeVry.  She needs to go talk to real live people who do this shit.

In both cases I am struck by their unwillingness to assert themselves with power.  They both wait to be told what they should be doing and how they should do it.  I don't do that.  I don't think it is because I am white.  I think it is because I was shown that rich people are assholes and they do whatever the fuck they want whenever the fuck they want.  They can get away with it.  I wanted to learn how.

In Los Gatos High School the kids all got away with murder.  It was eery.  I watched kids be disrespectful in ways that made my eyes bug out.  But the teachers were powerless in terms of discipline.  It was really obvious to me that the teachers were only going to be effective if they form a personal bond.  And you can't do that with everyone.

Christina isn't a bad teacher and she doesn't need to do anything different from what she's doing.  Her kids will learn just fine.  But she's not the right teacher for people who are hostile to working from a textbook.  Early on when I was teaching it made me angry that she followed the textbook because it felt like a personal injustice that she was perpetuating the lie that people need to know the stupid shit inside that book.  No one ever needs to read a god damn textbook ever in their lives in order to be educated.

This is my dirty street kid talking.  I didn't ever read the textbooks.  I didn't do homework.  I was socially progressed through elementary and junior high because I did no work.  Looking around the room I always felt like the other kids must be smarter or better or... something than me.  For whatever reason I was never willing to do what I was told.  Ever.  I have had several teachers (in public schools) beat me trying to get me to change my behavior.  It only ever made me more stubborn.

It's scary to stand near people who take up a lot of space.  It feels like they encroach on me and try to make me more like them.  It's scary to stand next to people who invite boundary incursion.  I don't want to push anyone to be more like me, either.  I'm pretty fucked up.  Why in the hell would anyone want to be like me.

But I went from the bottom 10% to the top 5% in a time when my generation is crying out against the injustice of lack of social mobility.  It's hard to not feel like a whore.  I am this rich because Noah fell in love with me.  He wanted a wife who was sufficiently slutty and fun.  He encourages me in doing every transgressive thing I want to do.  Because he thinks there isn't actually anything wrong with anything that I'm doing.

I think it was easier to go find other groups that would encourage healthier behaviors because I looked enough like the groups that I wanted to be part of.  When I was in neighborhoods where I was the only white kid, I wasn't invited into the homes of nice families.  I never had the experience of nice families in a multi-cultural setting.  In Los Gatos it took a while for people to notice that I didn't fit in and then they would stop inviting me.  So in the poor, non-white (the specific concentration depended on where we were living) areas I spent all my time alone.  Occasionally I wandered out for a sexual assault.  When I was in white areas I was surrounded by very affluent, quirky people.

It's had an effect on me.  So yesterday when this nice girl was helping me clean my house we sat and talked a lot about her school experience and how she feels quite sure that they aren't teaching her what she needs to know.

You know, I can't foster children in a house this small.  But I sure as shit can have a long string of people who need money work for me and I can help them network.  You want to be a Sys Admin, honey?  Let me introduce you to some nice girls I know.

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