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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Teacher Is Sad

Jacob Taanman When the Teacher's Back Is Turned 
Professor Jane Doe prides herself on not discussing current events with her students during class time.

She is not one of those self-indulgent poseurs who prepare no lessons and merely wing it, convinced that access to her font of wisdom enriches the students' lives.

She carries a backpack. In it are enough materials for two full lesson plans. One to present, one as backup in case the designated lesson plan goes south for any reason.

But on Tuesday, November 22, 2016, she wants her students to see something. A video that is visible on youtube.

Funny that this should occur on November 22, the anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Doe is not a Kennedy acolyte. He served only a thousand days. But. Kennedy had dignity. Kennedy inspired. Kennedy changed the country through his classy style. People around the world looked at Kennedy and believed that anything is possible and the world can be a better place. Leadership matters.

On November 22, 2016, Doe will allow an incursion of current events into her precious and protected classroom time because the video is pertinent to her class' topic. The class addresses cultural diversity, social inequities and education.

Cultural diversity? Like this. Doe once had a Muslim student whose family threatened to murder her because she had been seen alone in a car with a Christian American boy. Doe had to drive this Muslim student to a woman's shelter. Like this. At a local high school, teachers are used to their female Muslim students disappearing at around age 14 or 15. They are sent to their ancestral homelands and married off.

Social inequities? Recently candidate Hillary Clinton mentioned that "schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s." Politifact broke this statement down and rated it "mostly true." See here

Doe regularly visits a public high school with almost two thousand students that, she is told, has not one white student. Three miles away, in a wealthier town in a densely populated state, another high school has almost all white students, with a few Asians.

Doe teaches her students these words: "de facto" and "de jure."

"We no longer have de jure segregation. We now have de facto segregation."

Doe also, as part of her job, visits an elementary school. To get to this school she travels past empty factories, encampments of homeless men, high fences and broken glass. In brightest day, she, an adult, is terrified of this neighborhood. She thinks of what it must be like to be seven, eight years old and to face this trip to school every day.

The school has no library. No art. No music. There is sometimes corporal punishment.

Doe attempts to speak to the students. A noticeable percent can't bring themselves to make eye contact.

So. Cultural diversity and social inequity are not just buzzwords. They are empty stomachs, treacherous commutes, hands that have never held a book that is read cover to cover. Ears that never experience any escape from the constant noise of traffic, sirens, loud rap, boom boxes, street fights. Contrasted, of course, with wide grassy lawns and strapping football stars, surrounded by rolling green hills, hundreds of dollars paid to SAT tutors and parents buying son or daughter a car. All three miles apart.

Yes, yes, yes. There is a lot of history and politics behind the words "diversity" and "inequity." A human being responds to hunger in a child's stomach and fear in a child's eyes and recognizes that that child did nothing to create the history or the politics. And recognizes that that child is the future, a future that will impinge on the green rolling hills in a good way, or in a nightmarish way. We choose.

On November 22, a video has just been released. It features Richard B. Spencer, a white nationalist, leading his followers in stiff-armed salutes and chanting "Hail Trump," in an overt imitation of "Heil Hitler." Spencer praises white people and whiteness. Whites are the doers. Everyone else is a parasite. You can read Spencer's speech here. You can view the video here.

Doe is confident that her students can handle watching this video. Doe is proud of her students.

The class itself is diverse. The class itself is unequal. There are white students, black students, rich students, poor students, differently abled students.

Doe has hit them with difficult material. For example the 1916 book by Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, a book that Hitler called his "bible." Grant was a great man. He helped save the redwoods, the buffalo, and he cofounded the Bronx Zoo. Grant championed Darwin at a time when Darwin was controversial. Grant attempted to prove Darwin correct by placing Ota Benga, a human being, a man from Africa, in the Bronx Zoo. See? See this black man, very low down on the evolutionary scale? He's little better than a monkey. Benga committed suicide.

Grant was key in Congress passing the 1924 quota act, that all but barred immigration of Poles and Slovaks to the US, on the basis of their racial inferiority. Doe's parents were among those inferior immigrants. She knows how racism feels.

Doe's class discusses the achievement gap, the persistent underachievement of African American students on standardized tests. She feels for her black students when this material is studied. It must hurt to be in a class with white students and to be reminded that black students persistently score lower than whites.

Doe assigns to her students various authors' explanations for this gap. She assigns the liberal Jonathan Kozol, who blames greed and white racism, and wants to create a federally funded "utopia" for children.

Doe also assigns Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative, who blames the achievement gap on "black culture." African Americans must pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

White students and black students, rich students and poor students, read all of this material, from the left and from the right, examine it for truth value, and surprise Doe with their assessments. Many black students are among the most conservative in the class. Yes, we have to change our own fate. No, white liberals can't rescue us.

So, yes, Doe is confident in these students. They can handle the video.

The video is only three minutes long.

It ends and … pain. An explosion of pain.

This is what white people think. They all hate us. How dare he say that America belongs to white people? What about the Native Americans that white people killed off? What about black slaves? White people hate us.

At first, the white students condemn Spencer. But then, in the face of so much pain, they go quiet.

Many of the students most likely to talk say nothing.

Finally Doe says, "I'm white."

Well, you're one of the nice ones.

Doe is overwhelmed. She's been with these students for weeks. The class has discussed very difficult material. This is the first time she's seen exactly this: the class divided on color lines.

This is the first time she's heard this: a sense of doom and paranoia from the black students. It's as if the video has opened a hidden vein of defeat. Students who had been positive and determined and ready for a better, brighter tomorrow, a tomorrow they would help create, suddenly sound a hundred years old: No matter what we do, people hate us.

Doe tries to rescue.

Listen, she says. We've been studying people like this all semester, in the material we've been reading. Remember Madison Grant?

Yes, the students say.

He said the same stuff, Doe reminded them. We learned how to refute him. We know about the IQ tests devised by Carl Brigham. Remember he "proved" that Polish people are at the bottom of the barrel intellectually, and yet here I am a Polish American with a PhD. We know enough to prove racists wrong.

Doe's introduction of facts does nothing to heal the wounds.

What the students know is that a new president has been elected, and white supremacists holding their meeting "hailed" him with stiff armed salute. They know that their new president has used twitter to savage a beauty pageant contestant and a Broadway musical that has vivified the Founding Fathers for millions of fans. They know that their new president, without prompting, has not unleashed the same level of invective against white supremacy. The playing field has changed.

Leadership matters. 

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