A New Teaching Job. A New Subject. A New Imperative.

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I am beginning a new job this week! But, today, I am fluish, worn from a summer of traveling the world on a magnificent honeymoon, absent from today’s Professional Development session and trying to find my bearings.

I am leaving the English classroom of a small charter school for the History Department of Taos High School. I have New Mexico, US, and World Histories to teach as well as the History of Film. I have a great deal of leeway, it seems, to attack the curriculum as I see fit.

At this point, I have fleshed out American history only. High School US history, a year long course, covers the story from the close of the Civil War to present. That means, the curriculum expects students to carry knowledge dating back at least two years prior when they were in Middle School of American history from pre-Columbian times to the Civil War. That says something crucial about the lack of emphasis and analysis we put on the country’s messy and discordant history. (That coupled with a one-semester course on the American Government rounds out American History credits needed to graduate. No Frederick Douglass, no John Brown, no Nat Turner, no President Jackson and the Trail of Tears.)

I have yet to speak with a teacher who says they can get through the curriculum past the Vietnam War. As well, no teacher has said they ever feel the time allows for them to study that period in any comprehensive way. So with WWI and WWII, the Great Depression and the New Deal, monopolies and Rockafellers, immigration and urbanization, there is not enough time to cover more than 100 or so years of history in one school year. I am anticipating the glossing over of an inexcusable amount of social history.  So. I am going to start with the Struggle for Civil Rights and frame our history through that lens rather than risk omitting it from the curriculm. Backwards, forwards, everywhere at once: chronology and place do not matter.

A lot has happened in a year. Last August, as we began our school year, the country was trying to piece together the tragedy in Ferguson. And as we tried to figure out the puzzle, tragedies and confusion mounted over the next 12 months. Names the country never knew came to light. Churches were targeted. A hashtag was launched. This year, we begin a new school year with fresh, but not new, tensions in Ferguson.

You already know this. Let’s leap to education as one of the puzzle pieces.

For the last two weeks, This American Life has grappled with a question regarding the achievement gap in American schools. Why do students of color, and most importantly black students as studied in the case of the first podcast, still lag so far behind their white counterparts. Highlighted was the school district Michael Brown graduated from three weeks prior to his death on a Ferguson street. Normandy. It was always a word of pride for American historians when we think of WWII and our heroes. But in this context? A terrible, terrible blight on equality and the state of public education.

I could recount the podcasts, but you should listen to them. I could rattle off the discouraging and indicting statistics of neglect characterized by the marginalization of communities of color. I could explain to you how racism pervades in our American communities, or at least around St. Louis. I could explain how Americans fear change, or are too impatient to let it take real hold. It’s all troubling. And that’s why you should listen to it. You have a responsibility to know these things for yourself. In our Buzzfeed world, everything is curated second hand or speedily consumed. I will not make it so easy.

Listening to the podcasts a bit late also coincided with Progressive golden boy Bernie Sanders getting jammed off the stage at an outdoor rally in Seattle by two women who affiliate themselves with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. There are so many angles to look at this, as no doubt you have seen online. The facts. The women were booed. Bernie left quietly, but now he has a black press secretary and a plan to address race issues comprehensively. The conjecture. The protesters weren’t actually affiliated with the BLM movement. Maybe there’s a conspiracy that the Clinton juggernaut supported or organized the protest. Wait, no props for the moment of silence for Michael Brown? Yeah, sure, but those women were too shrill for us to hear them! 

My biggest take away? Indeed those hot takes above. How we are digesting the protest as insight as to how we’ve digested our history. Think about it. The protesters were ridiculed and booed by a white audience at the event. Next, for compromising the attractiveness of a candidate, the two women were chastised online by a largely white Progressive electorate who thinks 70 year old white man Bernie Sanders is the only viable option in a circus of an election (still 14+ months away). Claiming the moral high ground, arguments developed that these women don’t respect that Bernie marched during Civil Rights campaigns in the 60s. Nothing acknowledging Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford may have been right to push the politician on his platform for racial issues?

By and large, the online media (including all of us on Facebook and Twitter) searches for holes in the protesters’ argument. The argument that Black Lives Matter is an organized entity worthy of respect. The argument that these two women even possess the intelligence and background to act with integrity and truth. The argument that this Presidential campaign for Sanders2016 even need to bother so publicly with issues for those of us with color when his platform already targets equality and the economy. Again though, BLM.

Here’s some more reading from Imani Gandy. Once again, do your part and read this. Couple this take with your knowledge of Charleston, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and (once you’ve listened) the podcasts from TAL. Then try to tell me that protesting at the Sanders rally wasn’t an imperative for many of us to reckon with history.

Try to enter a classroom and face students like mine, minority, poor, at-risk. Try to teach sincerely about a world that carries real opportunity for them. That the institution of State, at times even the institution of their own school, operates with their best interests in mind. Rather, go outside the classroom and express to communities of color that the institution of elections are colorblind.

And on that voting front, Bernie Sanders supporters are complaining that they are not getting enough access to the media with exception to the negative press from Seattle. So in concerning ourselves with access, I say, in education, the economy, our universities, places of power and respect, people of color still do not have the access. Their access is prisons. Poverty. Marginalization. Boohoo about Bernie not getting coverage on CNN. His campaign will persevere. In fact, as we have learned from Obama’s 8 years, campaigning with coverage doesn’t matter a whole lot anyway. If the candidate you choose becomes President, what you vote for may never happen.

If I take a second to look at them as my teachers, Ms. Johnson and Ms. Willaford protesting for a voice in national politics have the power to help me realize these truths of our history and present. I don’t need them to be right, just like I hope my students never blindly accept what I offer them. Or, better put to counter what is being pedaled on the Web, I don’t need their platform to be what I want it to be. Nor their Curriculum Vitae to be bulletproof. Nor do I need the satisfaction they protested the right way. If I demanded those ideals, and considering my whiteness, I would be abusing my privilege or defaulting to the racial ignorance pervasive in America. Both indefensible. Both everywhere on the Internet.

But at least the teacher can tear open the fabric that colors how we imagine the American story. We can refuse the light coming through. Let it blind us and wildly take up the gospel. Or consume it in meaningful doses with pause to think, letting it refract over our experience to this point.

More people, mostly of my background, either first hand or through a podcast, need to experience that this country is in dire need of a reckoning with its history and its future. I am thankful Bernie does not yet have the entourage that would discourage this type of protest because the disruption crystallized something important for me.

Understand: recognizing the power of this protest action does not mean I was asleep or unmoved when Michael Brown was shot, nor complacent when Charleston happened, Baltimore, Bland…this protest and the popular reaction to it (as well the rest of our political circus) are daggers of reminder of how America doesn’t really get it.

I want to believe in equality politics, too, Bernie supporters. But equity, in America, is pretty solid only in the sense that a lot of humans are left out of the ideal. Maybe a President can change that. Maybe a movement borne of a hashtag can change that. But nothing is as consistent in America like the uneven playing field we all deal with.

So, in this moment of fervor and ignition, I envision an American History curriculum that begins with The Declaration of Independence. Then an excerpt from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. And then a check in with Arizona’s white washed curriculum. Then a reminder what’s good up in Pine Ridge. Then we will return back to The Declaration of Independence, the cornerstone of America, and remix a new version of the document from those voices that usually do not have access to it.

Then we’ll give it to you and see what light you can take from it.

7 thoughts on “A New Teaching Job. A New Subject. A New Imperative.

  1. Mary Green says:

    I checked out 2 of the links above…Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is viscerally felt here…by me. in my mind and in my belly.

    the one by Imani about Sanders was refreshing like washing my face on a hot afternoon…

    I am considering moving from here where I have this garden and where I am the only anglo in the hood and where some of the verbal aggression has been stunning…

    right now, I feel foolish to have complained about the reverse racism…and yet…and yet…there is trauma in experiencing racism, even if only a little…

    SO

    am terribly encouraged that you’re doing this…and am terribly delighted to have received your blog post, much was affirmed for me as I read it, not just about the issues (the reminder to take life in in such a way as to digest it and make manifest real change)

    many thanks Ned…

    • Mary, thanks so much for the time you took with exploring and internalizing this post. You are a dedicated reader and I am glad I still have something of value to you!

    • Can’t wait to reconnect with Victor. For friends of the blog, this young man was in my first classroom when I was taught 2/3 for a maternity leave assignment. Launched my whole career. I will never forget your son!

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