My first year teaching in inner city Chicago was a spectacular failure.
The middle schoolers at a school in North Lawndale ran off two teachers in the four months before I arrived. A mid-year graduate from a nearly all white Wheaton College in the Chicago suburbs, I believed I was different. I would love my students. I would ignite their young minds with a passion for learning. When others ran, I would stay.
In my arrogance, I actually watched the movie Dangerous Minds the week after I accepted the job. In it, beautiful, blond Michelle Pfeiffer transforms her black and Latino students through the magic of learning. I, too, was determined to be an inspirational badass.
I couldn’t wait to be the hero.
I didn’t realize I was stepping into a complex web of poverty, segregation, unemployment, emotional wounds, lack of education and a deadly compulsion to belong even if it meant to a gang. In my desire to be a do-gooder, I added clutter to an already chaotic and confusing system.
I worked 16 hour days, planned elaborate lessons, called parents daily and quickly memorized student’s names. But after having done nothing for the entire year, the students were not about to begin working. On the third day of school, my students egged my car. By the end of the semester, I wept every morning on the drive to school. I was sick a total of seven weeks between the months of January and June.
In 2002, North Lawndale was (and still is) one of the most segregated, drug-riddled, and poverty-stricken areas of Chicago. When asked to draw their neighborhood, my sixth graders drew corners where drugs were sold and houses where gang-bangers lived. To buy anything from a gas station, you had to order it from the cashier from behind a barred window. Boarded up houses, abandoned lots and glass-littered parks spread out like a ghost town. Twelve year olds were checked regularly for weapons.
The school was 100 percent black. Most of my students did not live at home with two parents and the majority were being raised by a grandmother. I had to be careful which students I called home about missing homework or behavior, because they would be beaten. I was convinced that if tested, every single one of my students would have been diagnosed as having some sort of behavioral disorder. Some of them would throw desks if I didn’t call on them to read out of the social studies book.
At first, I couldn’t understand my students when they spoke. They twisted and played with words, volleying back and forth. I struggled to decode their cryptic language and enter into their conversations. Their invisible walls seemed impenetrable.
I quickly realized the dilemma of being the lone adult in the classroom when a fight broke out (which happened at least weekly). As soon as you secured one student, the other would come swinging at both of you. A student accidentally struck me once and from then on I decided to let them fight it out until I could seek help. The office got used to me buzzing down, though I was more likely to send a student next door to enlist the help of the eccentric 60 year-old gay hippie teacher.
The staff was about half black, though our middle school group of four teachers was all white. The other three had been teaching in the neighborhood for many years. The math teacher, who had taught in Lawndale about 30 years, told how the white staff were hidden in the trunks of the African American’s cars on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. I remember she would wrap Snickers bars for all her students for their birthdays. Her students adored her.
When my students cursed at me, I said I loved them. I arrived at work early and stayed up late grading papers and planning lessons. I promised I wouldn’t abandon them. I thought if they knew I was in it for the long haul that they’d start to trust me.
But it wasn’t enough. My words and even some of my actions betrayed me.
In spite of working through the summer to prepare curriculum for the fall, the week before school began I received a message from the principal: “Come and pick up your things. We’re really sorry, but another teacher has been hired to replace you.” Was it because I couldn’t control my classroom? Because the parents complained about me? Because of politics within the school that I wasn’t privy to? Because I was white … ?
Or did my students and the administration sense my lack of authenticity? When I thought I was communicating love, did they feel patronized? Was I trying to fit my students into the culture of my whiteness instead of first learning about their culture, bending and assimilating to them instead of expecting them to orient to me?
I’ll never know.
I fought for my job, but lost the fight. When school began, I was sent to different schools each day as a substitute teacher until a new job opened up.
Perhaps my students and the administration saw through my idealism and lust to be the hero who rushed into the inner city to save the day.
Perhaps they saw what I could not.
The woman who originally recruited me, Karen Trout, was also white, but her experience was vastly different from mine. With a pixie-cut and a quick smile, she had showed me around, telling me her dreams for the school and for the students. At 31, she and her husband had already lived in Lawndale for almost ten years and had informally adopted three African American boys. Her husband was in full-time ministry, training men to love God, work hard and be educated. I admired her patience and understanding. Without her as a mentor I wouldn’t have made it six days, much less six months.
Her family is still in Lawndale today. They turned the abandoned lot next to their three-flat into a park for their street. Their adopted children are grown and their two biological children are two of just a few white children in an otherwise all-black school. They have started businesses around the city that provide young men and women with jobs that take them off the streets. As much as possible, they have assimilated into the culture and allowed themselves to not only be known, but to know their neighbors.
I was in it for me.
New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).
During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.