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Race, Reliability, and Regret: A Teaching Story

In the mid-‘90s, I taught English in an upper-class suburban high school. In my first year of teaching, I was assigned one class of “English Basics,” a class for students who were far behind their peers in their ability to read and write. Basics was a small class, usually only around 10 students, and in the class of sophomores that I was given, the kids were reading on about a second grade level. I was never told the educational or personal background of any child, and I had no special training to help these students, but like all new English teachers, was expected to teach one class of Basics for a couple of years. The positive side, I was told, was that I would only have the class for first quarter and then again for third quarter. Another teacher would take the class second quarter and fourth quarter, so we would each have a “break.”

This staggered-teaching arrangement, especially for a class of kids who were far behind academically, seemed odd to me. I wondered if it had the inadvertent effect of instability and impermanence for the students. The teachers seemed to like it, though, and who was I to say anything—me, a brand-new teacher? Still, I had nagging doubts about this set-up and how beneficial it was for the kids.

The Beginning

When I walked into that 10th grade classroom for the first time, I saw that 8 of the 10 students were black. This wasn’t a surprise to me. Even though the school was upper class and largely white, desegregation laws were still in effect at the time and many black students were bused in from the city. Some of these students were in this class.

I need to pause here to mention my appearance because it’s relevant to this story. I was teaching in an affluent high school, and I looked like I fit right in. Translation: I was very white. One of my Basics students helpfully pointed that out to me on the first day (I believe his exact words were, “You’re really white”). I had never paid even one bit of attention to my “whiteness” before, but after he said that to me, I realized just how white I appeared to these kids: fair-skinned, blondish hair, well-dressed, professional demeanor. Now, they didn’t know that my background included poverty and displacement, or that I lived in a trailer park well-known to police during my teenage years. As far as difficult childhoods go, we probably had some things in common, but they didn’t know this.

On that first day, we got off to a rocky start. I played a drawing game with them, asking them to draw their home (I did, too). In retrospect, I realize that I was pretty naïve to request this. It didn’t go well. Two or three kids participated correctly, several kids didn’t participate at all, and one kid drew a remarkably accurate Batman symbol instead (this kid went on to become one of my favorite students ever).

I struggled to find my groove those first few weeks. I tried random ideas and books to engage the students, all to no avail. Then one day, some kids’ educational magazines were delivered to the room. They were written for younger students, but were high interest, colorful, and fresh. I passed them out for part of each class period and we read from them together.

The Breakthrough

One day in our magazine we came across a short play adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a book I had never read. Still, I knew the basic plot and I thought we’d give it a try. I could feel the excitement in the air even as I assigned roles. These 15- and 16-year-old boys (nine of the ten were boys) were interested and engaged, laughing about which role they wanted and pretend-arguing over them. Then we started reading aloud. Slowly, very slowly, we progressed through the play. There was no shame in this classroom due to poor reading skills; everyone was at about the same level and I had developed a real heart for these kids, a matter-of-fact approach that said to them, “You are great to listen to. You’re doing a good job and I enjoy teaching you! I like hearing you read aloud and making this play come to life.” And I did.

We took days to get through a play that was only a few pages long. This was partly because they read slowly, but mostly it was because we stopped often for fascinating discussions along the way. We talked about the characters’ motivations, what the outcome was, and how it would have been different if different choices had been made. We talked about Captain Nemo, his ship the Nautilus, and the monster squid. We talked about what we might have done if we’d been one of these characters. We talked about how the play related to real life, how people and events can surprise us and disappoint us and inspire us. Each student identified (or didn’t) with his particular character; this sparked great discussions among the entire class.

After we finished reading the play, those kids were on board with me. Not that every day after was a picnic; it wasn’t. We had struggles and boring days and great days just like with any class. But they now trusted me and were comfortable in the room. We were at ease with one another. They were still black, I was still white, but nobody noticed or cared. I enjoyed second hour and looked forward to it every day.

The Good-Bye

At the end of the eighth week, I realized that this class was going to switch teachers, as planned, for the next quarter. This was incredibly sad to me, and I hated reminding them about it. I assured them that I’d be back third quarter (but then gone again for fourth). I told them how wonderful their next teacher was (I knew she was good with “regular” classes and I hoped she was with Basics). I didn’t say how they would have to start all over, develop trust, and do whatever the new teacher felt was appropriate for them—but they knew this. I felt a wall go up and our ease and closeness with each other was diminished.

When I look back on my time teaching, the greatest regret I have is this: that I didn’t speak up and ask to keep this class for the entire year. I’m sure I could have; no one else wanted it. But I was brand new to my job and had been told that teaching Basics for just two alternating quarters was the department’s gift to me, that I should be grateful for it, that soon I would move on to never teaching Basics classes at all. This was merely to be a stepping stone to fulfilling my academic potential in the department.

The Outcome

I taught other students second quarter and came back in January to my Basics class. Only it wasn’t “my” class anymore. The same kids I had bonded with, laughed with, and discussed topics of great importance with were distant, uninterested, and unwilling to recapture what we’d had together during first quarter. I tried, but they seemed discouraged and beaten down in a way. I felt guilt. I wanted so badly to say to them, “I’m so sorry for deserting you. I’m sorry for passing you on to someone else, as I’m sure you’ve experienced so many times in school and maybe in life. I’m sorry I didn’t ask to keep you.” Because I really wanted to. I just didn’t have the courage or the confidence in my limited teaching experience to say it. And in all honesty, I was worried about seeming “different” from my fellow teachers, who didn’t want to teach these classes and had come up with ways to make it more palatable to do so.

Why is this a story of racial regret? Surely the regret would apply no matter what color my students were, right? That’s probably true, from my perspective. But it’s a particularly racial story because on the first day I met this class, one of them pointed out how white I was. I surely was (and am). I was a little taken aback at the time, but I realized that he was simply and honestly stating the obvious, and to him, this was a significant aspect of my identity. I wonder sometimes about his experience of white people (most of these kids had been in the desegregation program for years; they went to a white-majority, suburban school and went home to their own neighborhoods at night). I knew exactly what had happened between first quarter and third: I had bonded with these kids, become a friend to them, and then betrayed them. We had done the hard work of forming a class together, a group that learned and talked and questioned and discussed, and then I left them to someone else. When I came back nine weeks later, I was like a stranger to them.

I learned so much from that class. Their faces are forever in my memory, even 25 years later. I don’t know what they learned from me that year, but I learned much about perceptions, assumptions, and trustworthiness. And that reliability is critical to relationship. Worthy, lifelong lessons from the Basics kids in second hour.

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