(Originally published in HeartAttack's "Eductation" Issue, 2003.)
I am 28 years old and I have these dreams. I see my neighbors tread more lightly on this fragile earth. People are as concerned for others as they are themselves. Citizenship means more than just the right to consume. And literacy—the ability to read, write, and speak one’s experience of life—is a right, not a privilege. Because of these dreams, and occasionally in spite of them, I teach.
An Anthem in a Vacuum…
Make no mistake; we’re in the middle of a new civil rights movement. In the years since “Separate but Equal” schooling was dismantled, this country has neglected to hand over the bricks and mortar of a true democracy to minorities and the poor. The ability to read is the ability to participate and until massive, systemic reform is enacted, American social policy for the poor will continue to be prison and the military.
I missed the march on Washington. I missed Roe vs. Wade. The end of Vietnam marked my birth. You’ve got to live in the time you live in, and creating equitable, sustainable schools that give students access to democratic life IS the place I feel myself needing to be. Language is the currency of power in this country, and to neglect the literacy needs of students is to commit educational malpractice. James Baldwin once said, "Without the word, we are imprisoned. With the word, we are set free." No matter how persistent it has been in our history, illiteracy is not inevitable.
And yet my school doesn't see it that way. Only half of those students who start the 9th grade end up graduating, and failure must after all boil down to "student apathy." The school continues to live under the delusion that there are white, English-speaking bodies warming those seats. It’s as if, in thirty years, no one has bothered to look up to check for understanding. Beneath this lies the blind and racist assumption that some kids—Latino kids--"just can't learn"? Put the lack of resources aside for the moment, and we still have a system that socially promotes second, third, or fourth grade readers well into high school. As a teacher of a second language, reading, and literature, these are the realities of teaching in a low-income, low-performing Californian school. Unfortunately, my school is more the rule than the exception.
…on a Hyperstation…
In the early years of schooling, a person learns the basic sounds, symbols, intonations, and process of learning to read. From fourth grade on, a child then reads to learn. The emphasis of the classroom moves to reading for content. Stories become more complex and history and science reading gains more depth. If a student has her education derailed by weak instruction at this critical stage, students are continuously behind in their comprehension of the written word put before them. In teaching circles this is known as “The Matthew Effect”—the reading rich get richer, while the reading poor get poorer. For those in my community, mainly US-born Latinos whose parents are predominantly from the state of Michoacan, Mexico, children becomes functionally illiterate in both their first and second language. This is a unique population of in that they have high oral fluency (they sound like native speakers of both languages) but have poor reading comprehension, both in Spanish and English.
Here’s an illustration of the breadth of experience I’ve encountered in my classroom. Last spring, as I began a unit on poetry, one kid recited the baseball ode “Casey at Bat.” Just minutes later another kid asked how to write the capital letter K. Still another girl was heard making a post-lunch commentary with the insightful, but grammatically puzzling comment, “There’s so not any ranch dressing in the salad bar!” Add to this the image of a chubby Filipino boy, festooned in the latest hip hop gear, sporting a “corn row” hairdo a la Allen Iverson, beat-boxing and channeling Nas with the line, “I rock more heads than those niggas on the slaveships.” Contemplating the spheres of linguistic, racial, and teen cultures they negotiate daily is enough to make your head spin. For me, though, these are the most beautiful, engaging, challenging and complex individuals I have ever met. And in a small way, they have all become my children.
Freshmen are my current favorite. Sure, they have the energy of electrified soap, but that’s part of their charm. They’re just so open and malleable. And they’re totally transparent in their exploration of the world around them. It’s all so totally new to them, and they want part of it all. The ladies develop much quicker than the fellas, and their sophistication shows in the way they carry themselves. My grommets, however, would just as soon be out playing ninjas in the woods. Regardless of their abilities, “Dick and Jane” books just aren’t flying with this crowd. Struggling readers in the later grades develop a full complement of coping mechanisms to deal with their shortcomings. More often than not, the troublemakers are those who mask their inadequacies with unruly behavior, taunts, and jeers. If you can build their trust, you find quickly just how much they read the world, and the word, and how they make sense of it all on their own terms.
Each year I begin with a tapestry of rich thematic pieces of reading. Julia Alvarez' "Autobiography of Sheherezad", Judith Ortiz Cofer's "Abuela Invents the Zero", and some very accessible Greek myths provide a scaffold with which I can build confidence, fluency, critical thinking, and close reading. These tales also help create a connection between personal experience—within the community—and the similar experiences of those from radically different cultures. This year I knew I was onto something when Daisy Rangel came in one Monday morning, eager to tell me about her weekend dramas and her latest crush. She also relayed a story of how her aunt had been going through a hard emotional time, and Daisy, never one to miss an opportunity to share her opinion, told her aunt, "Tia, that problem, that's your Achilles heel. That's what's bringing you down." I nearly cried. Another time, as I guided my class through the prejudice and perspective of To Kill a Mockingbird, Marisa Barajas connected her own life to that of the mixed-race children of Maycomb County. “They’re outcast like me. Mexicans won’t have me because I don’t speak Spanish. Whites won’t have me cuz I look Latina.” These are the aspects of teaching that break your heart, but also make you endeavor on the behalf of others.
…Daydreaming Days in a Daydream Nation…
I was just another no-future cynic teenager from the ‘burbs when it happened. Literally within a month of one another, two slogans from the annals of political rabble rousing arrived in my life. “Destroy Power, Not People!” “All Power to the people!” Each resonated with immediacy and intensity that even the Bones Brigade or Public Enemy couldn’t match. Buddhists say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and I guess they’re right. These phrases have each influenced me innumerable ways, and it is the latter that I bring to my kids. The fact that I’m an authority figure, revered by parents and the community, doesn’t rub me the wrong way. I’m a leader to these kids. I want them to have the ability to read and the confidence to learn. For me this means walking with, not above my pupils, and sharing what I know of the world in an effort to bring greater cultural, economic, and social power to them. For as fundamentally flawed as my current school situation is, I love that I am a teacher, connecting with others in the most powerful of mediums there is: language.
I'll conclude with one such connection from the early days of my reading class. We had just read Pandora's Box and, after all the hate and anger and sorrow had been released into the world, hope emerged. One of my kids raised a hand to say, "That's just like the saying in Spanish, 'la esperanza muere al ultimo. Hope dies last.'"
Much love, friends.
Postscript: As my school year draws to a close amidst budget cuts, the imperialist war in Iraq, and violence in our local community, I want to dedicate this article to the thirty 11th grade students of mine who dropped out last year alone. It is also dedicated to the students who chose to escape a small town by joining the armed services.
(Originally published in HeartAttack's "Eductation" Issue, 2003.)