So, every now and then, a new student arrives at The Middle School. They usually go unnoticed by me unless they've been placed in one of the special education classes. I only teach the students in these classes. I only know the general education students due to after school programs, conflicts with special needs students, or gossip. Almost every day I'll see an eighth student that I swear is new, only to find out he or she's been at the school since sixth grade.
I was delighted when I first saw her. Finally! We're, uh, diversifying! She gets to hang out with Black Kids and they get to hang out with Asian Girl*. Middle school is hellish but... maybe there will be an opportunity for more cultural exchanges and deconstructing stereotypes. Maybe some students will stop referring to every Asian person as "a Chinese." They finally learned to not call every Spanish-speaking person "a Mexican."
A teacher can dream, no?
I've watched the kids interact during lunch. She sits with my favorites, quirky girls who have managed to stay sane in the midst of extreme bullying, hormonal changes and ongoing oppression from the adults. I've asked teachers what the dynamics of class have been like since she arrived. No reports of slurs or offensive gestures on either end. No tears or snickering. Instead, I get "And she's making friends quickly."
Lovely, right? Here's the thing...
After school, I overheard one of the teachers saying she was going to tell the girl's parents to "get her out of here" because "our kids will set such a bad example for her." I immediately objected to this. Saying something along the lines of it being great that she's at The Middle School because young people need exposure, our school is disproportionately** Black, let us be careful not to put Asian Girl on a pedestal in the exoticized/model minority trap. The teacher started yelling over me, "In her culture, their kids obey. They respect adults. She doesn't need to be around our kids. They're too nasty for her. She's so sweet. She needs to be in one of those schools in Park Slope."
There was so much wrong here.
1. "Our" kids? Why can't she just say what she means? Black kids.
2. Where was this concern before the arrival of this student? "Our kids" can suffer bullying and disrespect but not "their kids"?
3. How does this teacher not realize she is valuing one child over the others? Or does she just not care? Is this one of those internalized racism moments?
4. Not all of our kids are bad examples. Most of them aren't. And the ones that are can't be blamed.
5. Has this teacher hung out in Park Slope on a weekend and heard how those kids speak to adults? I'll take my little Bed Stuy babies over them any day.
6. If this child wasn't Asian, or was from a single parent or working class home, or was drawn to the bad examples, or could catch an attitude with the best of them, would this teacher still feel like she needed to get out of The Middle School asap? I've yet to meet a single NYC middle school teacher whose school is free of rude adolescents. They're everywhere.
I don't mean to make light of being the only child of your race in your school. I was the only Black child in my school for a long time. What if I had teachers who said,"She's Black. In her culture, their children are all fucked up. She needs to be in one of those Liberty City schools." (You know what? I probably did. But at least they didn't say that shit to my parents. Eventually, I did ask to go to a school with Black kids but even then, my parents didn't stick me any old place. Social capital.) I know babygirl's gon' be alright. Shit, she's making friends with the Black kids faster than I ever did. And who knows, it's only been a couple weeks, maybe she'll curse a teacher out before Thanksgiving. And maybe she won't. All I know is that the kids have shown us once again that the superficial shit doesn't need to matter all. the. time. When I see Asian Girl and Black Girl bouncing down the hallway, arms linked, giggling on their way to lunch, I think it's a wonderful thing for The Middle School.
*I wrote "Asian Girl" here because the adults in my school, myself included, immediately constructed assumptions about her based solely on her ethnicity. It was all we were seeing (maybe still are seeing?), and the only thing we were using to determine what her experience might be like. We don't reduce our other new students down to their Blackness. It's just a way to highlight how much of our reactions and expectations rest on this single part of her identity.
** Okay, so it's not. The population of Black students in the school reflects the numbers representing the neighborhood. I use the word "disproportionately" because in an urban setting it is sad to see schools remain so segregated. Maybe I'm just complaining because I had it differently and think its to the benefit of everyone to have a good mix. The middle schools and high school I went to were magnet schools, and applied the 30/30/30 rule to the student population.