Schoolyear Homestretch: They Know Not of What They Speak. Or Write.

The discussion in my predominately black, tenth-grade classroom was focused on racism.

We have been working our way through the book A Lesson Before Dying, a wonderful 1994 Pulitzer nominee about a rural Louisiana black man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. Set in 1947, the story pre-dates the Civil Rights days of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King (the only such benchmarks my students really know) by a decade, and chronicles the effort to see that the accused man dies with a sense of dignity.

Racism is a dominant theme of the story, and a concept that many of even my brightest students tend to incorrectly think is something in the past or, more sadly, not a huge part of their present.

During the discussion on where racism really ‘comes’ from, a black student stated firmly that racism is generally learned from one’s parents – ‘Even black racism.’ This idea was met with murmurs and nods of approval from those that are inclined to jump so forcefully into a discussion like that, but I wanted to point out that that might be a little over-simplified, noting that what parents think or believe doesn’t always transfer to a child and asking my students to think of things they disagree with their parents about. I told my students that I know of plenty of kids who aren’t racist even though their parents seem to be.

This idea was greeted with a few moments of silent indifference until one of the few white kids in the class chimed in proudly with an affirmation of my concept. “I’ve got proof of that, Mr. Lucker!” the kid said earnestly. “I’m supposed to be a fifth-generation KKK Klansman…

….but I’m NOT!”

“That’s…..good, Darren. Thank you for, umm…sharing that.”

The class stared at me, a few with quizzical looks that I can only assume were a reaction to whatever facial expression I had as I stared at Darren* for a moment. Aside from a few nods of agreement, nobody had a thing to say in response, and at first I was more surprised by the lack of reaction than I was the initial comment.

But I’m not. Just another day in the front of my classroom.

My students have a propensity for being obstinate – like most teenagers – but they will dig in their heels ferociously and adamantly defend their version when their take on a turn of phrase is challenged. Two examples from this year stand out.

The first was a sophomore who wrote about an essay commenting on her sister’s positive attitude, and the inspiration the sister provides her younger siblings, including Brenda, my student. She lauded, in worthy prose, her sister’s ‘self of steam.’

Even with provided context, I still had to read it a few times to understand what ‘self of steam’ meant for Brenda.

Discussing her paper with her, I was met with a puzzled look as I tried to explain that what she meant was her sister had a lot of ‘self-esteem’ – even going so far as to having her look up ‘esteem’ in the dictionary. Still, she contemplated, paused, looked at her paper and the dictionary, then looked up at me standing over her and said, distinctly, and with a definite correcting me tone of voice: ”Yeah, it’s her SELF. OF. STEAM, Mr. Lucker…how good she feels about herself.”

And the young woman’s ‘self of steam’ stayed that way in the final draft.

Maybe that’s what my students mean when they say, “Mr. Lucker…you’re blowin’ me!”

But I’m not.

The other top curious turn of phrase also came from a sophomore girl, who noted that when talking about literary point-of-view, it is not third-person-limited and third-person omniscient you need to understand, but rather ‘third- person limited and third person ammunition’ point-of-view.

She too, was left unswayed by logic, or the class handout on her desk we had been reviewing and discussing, or the textbook on her desk, all focusing on ‘third-person-omniscient’ narration.

Carlene was steadfast in explaining ‘third-person-ammunition’ point-of-view – which she actually did quite well.  If you overlook the fact that ‘omniscient’ and ‘ammunition’ are not synonymous. If you do that.

Even in New Orleans, I’m not sure ‘third-person-ammunition’ is a viable legal defense.

And finally…

I had a good chuckle to wrap up the last full week of the year with Ms. W, our school’s lead librarian. (The librarians love me because I bring all my classes there at the start of the semester to teach them about the library; apparently I’m the only English teacher who does that. Plus, I actually assign book reports – hence the initial library-orientation visit. They then know where to go to find the books for their book reports.)

Seems a student came into the library on Friday to return a book that he had checked out in October and found only now while cleaning out his locker. Aside from any pangs of guilt over depriving some other poor student of a book, the return of said tome also probably removed a financial hold from the kid’s record. Fortunately, the fines cease when the fine amount reaches the cost of the book; $16 in this case.

As Ms.W clicked away on the computer showing the book as returned and getting the kid’s holds removed, she said the running dialogue continued as follows:

“Well, at least I hope you enjoyed the book.”

“Eh. It was o.k. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

“But you liked it.”

“It was alright. Mr. Lucker made us read a book.”

All she could do relating the story to me was laugh about the kid’s ongoing ‘Mr. Lucker made us read a book.’ I shook my head and said ‘So, I suppose I should wear that as a badge of honor?

She continued laughing as she headed for the door, “Why not, Mr. Lucker? Why not?”

All this time I thought I was teaching English, not eastern philosophy. But I guess if the mantra “Mr. Lucker made us read a book” is the primary result of the year, maybe that will enhance someone’s self-of…Eh. You know what I mean.

Eh. You know what I mean.

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Educator, Educating, Getting Educated; Still So Much To Learn

I need to offer up an opening caveat here; as a middle-aged white male who grew up and spent his entire life living north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I write the following coming from a certain life experience that is light-years removed from those of my students and their families, and most of my colleagues, let alone the random people I meet in New Orleans.  The anecdote at the end of this post might offend some people, but it’s the way it happened.

Since moving to New Orleans in 2008 to help rebuild its wasteland of a public education system by becoming a teacher, I have had first-hand experience with many of the more esoteric issues that plague the educational system – and the community as a whole – with frightening regularity.  What I have come to understand (at least on some levels) is that most of the issues stem from attitudes and stereotypes long entrenched.  This is no great surprise, I suppose, from a sociological perspective, but its one thing to read about racism and negativity, and its root causes and ultimate effects, it’s another thing entirely to live it day after day.  

(SEE:  ‘A Teacher in New Orleans’ in the ‘Categories’ section of this blog, 26 posts, scroll up and to your right.)

What does continue to surprise me is that some of the worst practitioners of racist, outdated attitudes are African-American, and most of those that I have encountered are educators working in the system we are trying to reform.  Key among those destructive attitudes is; my expectations for students are too high because of the backgrounds of most of our students, and the children here cannot do what they are being asked to do simply because they are black.

Call me a northern, bleeding-heart liberal if you like, but I believe both of those statements are highly offensive as well as being absolutely false.  And no, these are not implied or imagined ideas and attitudes I am talking about; these are actual statements that have been made to me by both black and white residents of New Orleans, parents of my students, and black educators here.  Interestingly, while to date no white educator I have worked with  has made such direct statements to me, there are some that I have worked with that I feel believe them – but are more savvy in their racism than to say such things aloud.  Subtle racism is not just a ‘northern thing’.

 An incident last week outside the classroom really had me shaking my head, as in less than two minutes it summed up a whole bunch of my key frustrations about teaching in New Orleans. 

The Friday before a week-long Thanksgiving break found me at home, still on the mend from recent surgery, but again able to drive, so when the other family in our car pool was leaving town early, I said it would be no problem for me to drive my high school freshman son to school for one day…until my car wouldn’t start.  This was problematic, as my son not only had some key projects due, but he also attends a high-performing, nationally recognized school that actually has and enforces rules and expectations. I also knew I couldn’t just get him a ride there, because students arriving late need to be signed in by a parent.  ‘Plan B’ was quickly obvious: call a cab for the 15 minute roundtrip.  Phone book located, call made, taxi summoned.

 The cab arrived quickly, and my son would end up only being ten minutes late – but an educational ten minute ride it was. 

Our cabdriver was an African-American gentleman of about sixty. He greeted us warmly as we got into the backseat of his hack, he confirmed where we were going, and that I would be coming back to the house, and pulled away from the curb.  We made some quick small talk; nice weather, traffic was light, car wouldn’t start, thanks for the quick response, etc.

 Not a minute into the trip, totally out of the blue, our driver launched into a fascinating, disturbing, but not unprecedented (for me) monologue.  “So you go to (school name)?  Oh, man that’s a good school.” We nodded, as he continued with an opening phrase that I have heard  more here in two years than in the rest of my life combined, and that always jars me; ‘you white folks’.

“You white folks do a good job with that. You work with your students at night with their lessons. See, black folks – we don’t do that.  You know why?  Because black folks think we know everything and we don’t listen to nobody. We don’t take advice.  Even black folks we elect don’t listen to nothin’. Every time we have a black mayor, they always get into trouble because they don’t listen to nobody, won’t take no advice. Think they know it all. Some of them black mayors even went to jail – because they don’t listen. Like that last one, Nagin – he didn’t listen to nobody. Look at the mess he made!   Now you take that Mr. Landreiu, the new mayor, he listens to folks…listens to advice and doesn’t think he knows everything. He’s a smart man, that Mr. Landrieu. White folks is different; you help your kids and that’s good. Black folks don’t do that.”  The driver shook his head sadly, while my 15 year old, stared straight ahead, wide-eyed, as the cabbie added, “You got something good; that (name) is a good school.”  (Interestingly, they also boast one of the most diverse student bodies in the city.)

“Yes, sir” replied my son, diplomatically.

“Yep. It’s a good school – he works hard. They don’t mess around there.” I added.

“Now see, that’s something else we black folks don’t do” continued the cab driver, “We always got to be messing around instead of doing what’s important.”

I didn’t know what to do or say, so I asked my son a few reminder questions about his school day, to which he responded affirmatively.  As we pulled up to the school, I reminded the driver that I had to go sign in, but that I would be right back for the trip home. As I returned to the cab, I asked the driver if he was expecting a busy weekend, coming up on Thanksgiving.  “Yep, Friday’s are always busy, holidays busier. You going anywhere on business or anything?”

“Nope” I replied, “I’m a teacher, got some time off because of some surgery, then off all next week.”

“Teacher? Really?  Where at?”
“(Name) school – out in New Orleans East.”

“Well then” he chuckled, “Then you know exactly what I was talking about, ‘cause you see it every day with those kids.”

Unfortunately, I did know exactly what he was talking about (I think) but from a very different perspective than what he had intended. I said something about facing ‘daily challenges’ with my students and we rode the rest of the way in silence, save a radio call from his dispatcher with his next pick up. I paid him, he dropped me off at home, we exchanged pleasantries, he drove off. 

 Less than 20 minutes, round trip.  Quite the lesson.  My education here continues.