Today’s Our Land Series post is brought to you by the fabulous Jean H. from Mama, Schmama. Jean’s gorgeous writing is full of light and wisdom. Each time that I visit her pages, I am either smiling, laughing, nodding my head in agreement, or “awwww-ing” over her touching and heart-filled outlook at life and parenthood. Seriously – she’s amazing. Jean’s experiences as a teacher are something that she rarely writes about on her blog, which makes her words here today even more special to me. I’m honored to share them with you.
Our Land – For my Students, with Love and Pencils
“Just don’t go into that neighborhood.”
I taught students who were at-risk and living in poverty, from that neighborhood. Most of their families lived in generational poverty and were very much accustomed to working with a society that was not striving to harvest the hope of inclusion- they knew people avoided their community. Our classroom community was affected by all the challenges that come with poverty and prejudice daily.
“You, like, go to school in the ghetto. Aren’t you afraid of getting shot?”
“Their parents are just looking for a handout.”
On a better day and with a strong mindset, it was infuriating. On a bad day, it felt soul-crushing. Poverty is cruel enough without prejudice heaped on top.
I did not experience that life as a child, and when I met my students and their families at the beginning of the year, many of them made it clear that my privilege was written on my forehead.
“You can’t handle my Briyana.”
“What do YOU know?”
Maybe it’s ironic that a group of people so frequently stereotyped would, in turn, stereotype others, but knowing that wasn’t going to help me in the classroom. I spent a lot of my time proving myself to my students and their families instead. I wanted to show them that I hadn’t lived their challenges but I sure as hell was going to work with them where they were at currently. I would listen without judgment. I would see past their struggles to find the child. They deserved that much.
If charity was necessary, I did it modestly and privately. I handed over pencils and new book bags. I made end-of-the-day calls home to parents to say their child didn’t need to bring in the $5 for the field trip (Skip a trip to Starbucks or deny a child his first chance to see a major US city, less than an hour away?). If anger was present, I sought common ground and understanding. I didn’t sugarcoat the situation, nor was I totally immune to becoming jaded.
At some point during the year, students and parents would declare “Mrs. H don’t play” or “You’re not racist” or “You don’t care if your students are poor, you teach everybody.” I don’t expect my husband to compliment me on my lack of racism but in the situation, they were signs of success. It let me know that my students and parents knew I cared enough to meet them on their journey, without judgment, with the belief that their challenges did not define them. They deserved to know that someone cared and that I could handle Briyana, dammit.
Not all students or parents saw that, though, and sometimes I just wasn’t good at finding a way to show I cared.
I taught Tara and, a few years later, her younger sister, Nevaeh. Nevaeh and Tara’s father went to prison which created a financial crisis for the family. By the time Nevaeh entered my classroom, she had become impenetrable. She was skilled at causing strife and chaos and she liked it.
I did not reach her and neither did the rest of her teachers in elementary school.
Right now, Nevaeh is living in your community. You stand in line behind her at the grocery store and pass her on the sidewalk. Every interaction you have with her is your chance to prove that people are kind and “not racist.”
So, how will you do it?
Here’s my suggestion:
Play to the pencils and the preservation of dignity that a privately gifted book bag can bring. Be thoughtful and respond appropriately during the many chances you will have to change the mind of someone suffering under the stress and prejudice of poverty.
Smile. Make eye contact. Attempt understanding while withholding judgment. Humor. Humor. Humor. Be fearless without bravado. Meet that person where they are right now. And because sometimes grand gestures are necessary, do them with the respect for the needs of pride and dignity of the recipient. Understand your work could very well go unappreciated or even noticed. Know that it takes you and the decisions of many others to prove that our society cares.
Be confident that you can help. You are equipped with all you need.
Our Land is a place where people are accepted no matter the challenges they face. Those of us who are fortunate enough to have not experienced those challenges are capable of creating that world. It is our responsibility to take that first step. Now.
I told you guys that Jean’s words would amaze you. Be sure to check out her wonderful blog, Mama, Schmama. Here’s a bit more about Jean:
Jean is a former teacher who blogs during increasingly fleeting nap-times and aspires to be an Instagram addict. When she’s not busy worrying, she’s raising her two children and wondering what her former students are doing. Jean wishes for third-person bio blurbs to fall out of fashion and, of course, world peace.