In retrospect, the discussion was about me, though I didn’t realize it while sitting there. My colleagues’ conversation this day swirled around teachers not following State Mandates—how enforced curriculum mapping would ensure every teacher is on the same page, teaching the same topic, at the same time. Later, I realized I was the cause of my cohorts’ discontent, but not until a parent e-mailed, alerting me my job was in jeopardy from teaching “peace instead of literature,” not until students said they were “sorry about next year,” and not until a colleague cautioned that I was “not teaching the State Standards and Benchmarks.”
Languishing under the sweltering sun of New Mexico, where unemployment rates climb nearly as high as the temperatures, in part because of job outsourcing to nearby Juarez, Mexico, two thirds of my students subsist below the poverty level. For many, they would be the first in their families to finish high school, assuming the daily drudgery of educational irrelevance doesn’t dull their enthusiasm for learning, wouldn’t rob them of a lifetime of opportunity. For example, because of the frenzy to meet our high-stakes testing goals, most language arts teachers conformed their curriculum to the District’s thirteen “scientifically research-based” literacy strategies, none of which included reading books. These were disseminated and reinforced through countless vertical alignment meetings, horizontal alignment meetings, and daily team meetings with other content area teachers. These District-mandated literacy strategies promoted robotic writing and acronyms such as ACE (Answer question, Cite evidence, Explain further) and KIM (Key Idea, Information, Memory Clue) as they prepared for their MAP (Measurement of Academic Progress) before taking their CRT (Criterion Referenced Test) under the auspices of NCLB. But after teaching ACE and KIM ad nauseam, while watching my students’ eyes glaze over, I simply couldn’t take the monotony anymore.
Feeling guilty about stripping the souls from my students, and, quite frankly, tired of being bored, I searched for more culturally relevant curricula. As a result, together we became mesmerized by tales of intrigue, romance, and racism from Daniel Chacón’s short story collection, Chicano Chicanery. A professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, he visited my students, accompanied by his dog Kafka, speaking earnestly not only about his life and the written word, but about their lives, too. Impassioned by his message, the students wrote heartfelt letters to him, connecting Daniel’s stories to their own. And unlike many authors, often too busy to bother with kids, Daniel wrote back, validating that their words mattered, validating that they mattered:
But the best thing that had happened to me all year—since the time I saw you in October—was receiving your letters. Man, you all are amazing writers. You have such important, interesting stories. One of you told me about three girls who picked on another girl because she was of a different ethnicity. You pushed a girl just because these three other girls told you to do it. It gave me chills. I hope you learned something from it. Racism is a horrible thing, isn’t it? In fact, there were many stories about your experiences with racism. I hope that you and your classmates work towards making this a better world for all of us. Your letters were so well-written. If you decided, you could be writers, you could be anything. Thanks for making me and Kafka feel so accepted and loved.
I love you all,
Clearly, one doesn’t have to be a teacher to see that children were loving literature. To be sure, I’ve memorized a multitude of the New Mexico Language Arts Benchmarks, including I-D #3 “Accurately identify author’s purpose and perspective” to justify the students’ learning. And guaranteeing that all State Standards are covered throughout the year, I maintain the obligatory lesson-plan book, checking off each and every Standard, confirming that none are overlooked, all the while dutifully posting them on my whiteboard for everyone to see. But slicing and dicing students’ eloquence into parts and pieces, while confining teachers to bizarre “numbering and naming rituals” as education activist Jonathan Kozol describes in The Shame of the Nation, at the very least, impedes our ability to speak honestly with students and each other.
"The teacher cannot simply say, ‘I read an early lyrical poem of William Butler Yeats with my third graders and discovered that they loved it.’ Instead, she must position what she did within a recognized compartment: ‘I used a poem of William Butler Yeats in order to deliver Elementary Standard 37-A’."
Sadly, forcing teachers, like linguistic contortionists, to manipulate their language and lessons into codified cubicles, will exhaust the souls of those wanting to teach and destroy the spirits of children wanting to learn. Perhaps that’s why so many teachers leave their life’s chosen profession and why too many children drop out of school.
But, as Daniel Chacón mentioned, we did read about prejudice. Believing, as veteran educator Herbert Kohl depicts in 36 Children, “The past might be studied in order to transform the present,” my students relived racial violence through Dudley Randall’s poem, “The Ballad of Birmingham,” when on Sunday, September 15, 1963, four girls’ lives were cut short in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Through Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of a lynching in “Strange Fruit,” we witnessed whites seizing souvenirs from black bodies swinging from trees, like crows snatching souvenirs for their nests. And we discovered the dangers of homophobia in Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld’s poignant “Let Live and Let Love Defeat Hate,” an homage to 15-year-old Lawrence King, shot in the head while sitting in his computer class at school. His “crime”? Being gay.
Suddenly, students began bringing me pieces they’d written, not for homework that was assigned, but because they wanted to write, because they had something to contribute. And not only did they expect me to listen, they expected their classmates to listen as well.
I found myself, outside on a boiling and sweaty day, preoccupied by a cool, icy popsicle. The death of my Aunt Diane, killed by cancer, had weighed down my thoughts. The only cooling of my body was the popsicle. I was hot, and as a fire was raging inside, I could see no reason for my body not to collapse, riddled with questions and remarks. The words imprinted on my forehead were of what I had been called all day. Apparently it said, “Hello, I’m a gay fag!” and my shirt read, “Please make fun of me!” as if the normal posted “Kick Me!” signs on our backs weren’t enough.
—from “The Popsicle,” by R.B.
My students did listen. As a result, many vowed they would stop calling others “gay” and “fag,” quintessential slurs used in schools across the country to debase other children’s self-worth.
But the bullying didn’t consist of verbal abuse alone. For many, girls and boys alike, their favorite pastime involved playing “21” in the restrooms. Encouraged by their peers, two children, often not equal in size or “skill,” would square off, then proceed to beat each other to a pulp, presumably for 21 seconds, although no one bothered carrying a stopwatch. After all, that annoying detail would only shorten the show for their “friends” egging the pretend pugilists on.
Yet these bathroom brawls were no pretense. Finally in early spring while playing 21 in the restroom, a seventh grade girl fell and hit her head on the sink. Most of her supposed friends left her writhing on the floor, seizing from the blow to her skull. Two of the braver girls stayed behind, one dislodging the victim’s tongue from her throat as she began choking. An ambulance arrived. And thankfully the victim fully recovered, but not before her fever spiked to 107 degrees.
I could not, in good conscience, continue my lessons as if nothing had happened. True, the perpetrators were suspended. Rules were broken; consequences paid. But this was not an isolated incident; it was a common practice often “played” for bragging rights during lunch. The “winner” received respect; the loser—public humiliation. When posing the question to my seventh graders, “How many of you have ever participated in 21?” approximately one third raised their hands. Upon witnessing my horror at their indifference to brutality, they protested, “But, we’re still friends! It doesn’t mean anything! How can you judge us, Miss, when you don’t know what we’re going through?”
It was a fair question, but this wasn’t about passing judgment; it was about keeping children safe. I could not allow this cruelty to continue. Moreover, from a legal standpoint, teachers are charged with in loco parentis, meaning “in the place of a parent.” In essence, because parents cannot watch over their children, ensuring their wellbeing while at school, we, as teachers, must do so for them. Thus, it is our responsibility to keep students safe, and if that task requires changing children’s attitudes (and our own) rather than just enforcing rules, then that’s our duty, too. According to education expert Herbert Kohl, “Children who fail, whose lives are miserable, are made that way in and out of school because of some form of injustice.” Was it possible my students were acting out their frustration at societal inequity? As Robert F. Kennedy, Sr. warned, “The violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay…the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men,” is no less debilitating than bullets or bombs. As shameful as this is to acknowledge, perhaps this game of 21 played by my students simply mirrored the indifference within my school, not from children, but from the adults in charge. How else can I explain that one third of my students participated in 21, yet we adults knew nothing? Barricaded behind our Standards and Benchmarks, bolstered by high-stakes testing, we could claim we knew nothing—that we were just too busy to notice. Yet the grim reality was we didn’t know because we did not want to know; it was easier not to know. Clearly, this last incident was a plea for help from my students, and I could no longer play accomplice to apathy within my school.
I revived Shirley Jackson’s classic story, “The Lottery,” a ghastly tale of a small-town ritual held annually where all residents, men, women, the elderly, and children alike, stone a community member to death. The victim might be one’s own mother; the murderers might be one’s own family members. It’s their tradition, they claim, the way things have always been. We then watched the NBC television movie, “The Lottery,” an updated version of the original tale with a modern-day twist. I froze the scene just as the daughter began heaving a stone at her mother; the perpetrator’s face contorted with hate. “These people are twisted!” the students protested. “How could they do such a thing, to their friends, to their loved ones?” Sickened by the scene, they demanded to know if towns still continue this practice.
I quietly responded, that, yes, this practice continues to this day. In fact, it occurs right here in New Mexico, right here within our school. Mouths gaping, the room grew silent. I pointed at the vicious face on the television screen, still looming down upon my students. “You see, when you’re in the bathroom playing 21, when you’re cheering on the violence, you act no different from them. You look no different from them. You are one of them!”
The students wrote in response to the story. Compiling their reactions, I asked those who had participated most recently in 21 for permission to include their names. They agreed, recognizing their power to transform themselves and their peers—to cease the assaults within our school. Acknowledging their own culpability, the students’ self-reflections were amazing. They read their words aloud in class, sometimes followed by spontaneous bursts of applause, one after another, each voice vanquishing the violence.
I think that just as those in the story are brainwashed, so are we. The townspeople that do this lottery see no harm for what it is, and it is murder. I can see what these townspeople are doing is wrong and crazy. Then again, we aren’t angels ourselves. They can see what I do is wrong and crazy, even though to me it is how I live. Just as they close their eyes to not see the wrong in what they are doing, I do the same. We are all brainwashed in our own ways.
Our school and “The Lottery” aren’t much different. Like 21 at school, you may not throw stones, but you throw punches that are stones, just like “The Lottery.” When you see friends fight, it not only hurts them, but you. It can kill you doing this 21, but I don’t mean physically, I mean emotionally, mentally. I’ll admit I have watched friends fight and did NOTHING. If you realize—open your eyes—we are all the oppressed and the oppressors in our world.
It is amazing how people can turn against people that they love. The people in the story are blinded. They don’t or they can’t or they just choose not to actually see what they are doing to other people. Honestly, I’ve been in a fight before and now people ask me if I regret it. And I always say no. I don’t regret it. What I like to say is there are no regrets in life, just lessons. I don’t regret what I did but I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t want to do it ever again because then I, or whoever is fighting, is turning into that angry mob. When people fight it’s like we are the angry mob because we’re watching and we’re not doing anything about it.
The rest of the school year, traditionally a time when disruptive behavior escalates, our 7th graders ceased the bathroom brawls. Some might say it was merely coincidental. I know my students would disagree.
Recently, author Pat Conroy published a letter in the West Virginia Charleston Gazette admonishing citizens for censuring his books. He applauded teachers who “take an unutterable joy in opening up the known world to their students” and praised his favorite teacher “the great Eugene Norris who set about in a thousand ways to change my life.” In explanation of violence within his books, Mr. Conroy wrote, “The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out.” I agree. That world includes everything from lynching to love, from romance to racism. And as painful as these topics are to discuss, our children cannot remain oblivious to them, while we focus instead on test prep. If they do, they will surely pay the price, perhaps with their own lives, perhaps with someone else’s. That is what my students have taught me, because for many, their day-to-day survival is at stake. Some adults may be unsettled by what we read in class, but as a principal once stated when discussing the Holocaust, “Turning ours heads from it doesn’t make it go away.”
Besides, there’s a whole lot more to life than test scores.
And so, I won’t allow my students to turn away from the stories that matter—of Chin Tetsutani who perished August 6, 1945 from an American bomb’s blast; his corroded tricycle still standing in Hiroshima’s Peace Museum, reminding the world of our promise toward peace. I won’t allow them to turn away from the children of Terezin concentration camp as they trudged toward the gas chambers, yet still seeing the beauty of butterflies. I won’t allow them to turn away from 14-year-old Emmett Till, his grotesque, battered body found floating in the Tallahatchie River, the catalyst for the civil rights crusade.
And I won’t allow them to turn away from each other.
Wanting to surprise my colleagues for Teacher Appreciation Week, I asked each student to write a meaningful letter to a teacher, something the teacher would cherish forever. They could NOT, however, select me because the gesture was intended as a gift to others. But being stubborn seventh graders, I received some anyway.
You want people to realize what power they have. But you want them to use it as a benefit. Not to put others down. And you want your students to see other students as people. Because most people don’t pay attention to the person sitting alone. They don’t realize the tears running down their faces could be caused by them. Most just pass them by. But I try not to do that. For I have been the crying nobody. To tell you the truth, a lot of people have been the friend lately. You have changed so many people. And every day there are lesser and lesser nobodies. So thank you. Thank you for encouraging the hand that helps up someone who has fallen. Thank you for opening the eyes of the blind. Thank you for making people realize.
My job was never in jeopardy; though at the time I believed that it was, especially in light of the rumors about me. But upon speaking with my building administrators after the school year had ended, they asserted their support for my multicultural approach to education. They were pleased with my work. But in reality, my principals’ approval was immaterial. Under the many-headed hydra of high-stakes testing, reinforced by the District-mandated teaching strategies, my colleagues, and in retrospect, even I, had begun policing ourselves and each other. Through constant surveillance via our daily meetings, we monitored and mimicked each other’s actions, much like Shirley Jackson’s lottery participants, privileging policy over people. While we excelled at teaching ACE and KIM, we failed miserably at teaching children. In essence, we had suppressed ourselves and, in turn, oppressed our students.
So feeling a little like Pat Conroy in defense of his writing, I felt I could not just turn away in silence and accept my colleagues’ criticism. That would be like turning away from my students. I had tried to teach them to speak out against injustice; so clearly, I must do the same, hence, the impetus for this piece. In reading K.W.’s letter, I realize I never defied State Curriculum, as some would have liked me to believe, as I, in fact, was beginning to believe. Rather, everything we did supported it, and then some. I will cherish this letter forever. And I’ll cherish the child who crafted it. And I’ll remember. I’ll remember that despite criticism, that despite test scores, I know what we do together in our classroom matters. It matters to those who count the most.
Note: This essay originally appeared on the Educational Courage website, a companion to the book Educational Courage: Resisting the Ambush of Public Education which brings together the voices of teachers, parents, and educational activists fighting market-driven educational policies and legislation such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
Lisa M. Weinbaum is proud to have taught middle school students for the past 22 years. She resides in southern New Mexico along with her husband and daughter.