Is it really possible or desirable for any of us to see people through a colorless, shapeless prism, limiting our perspective so that each individual who crosses our collective paths appears unremarkable, nondescript, and flavorless? Think about it: If we lived in a monochromatic world, just how much fun would that be? How boring and meaningless would our lives be if everyone else looked like, sounded like, and dressed just like us?
I grew up in a region of the country where I encountered few “people of color”–and that’s the last time you’ll see me use that particular phrasing—my own skin is darker than most skin that covers “people of color”. Damn! Sorry. I meant next to last time! My years and years of attending diversity workshops have left me with an aversion to “ edu-speak”, and that particular phrase was overused entirely, mostly by white folks who thought they were being politically correct. Just tell it like it is.
What I’m trying to say (and failing miserably) is that I was not exposed to differences in race, but I was exposed to variances in ethnicities. The difference? Oh, mostly neat stuff like food that tasted better, hair that was darker, thicker, and longer, grandparents with funny accents, and families proud of their heritage and the chutzpah of their parents or grandparents for carving out an existence in the greatest country on the planet.
My first teaching job was at an inner city, and I mean inner city elementary school on the near eastside of Indianapolis. I was freshly graduated from a little college in Pennsylvania’s Happy Valley, where we could readily identify our fellow Nittany Lions geographically by listening to each other refer to carbonated beverages as ‘pop’ or ‘soda’. For the uninitiated, State College, Pennsylvania serves as the dividing line between western and eastern Pennsylvania—I grew up in western, PA; ergo, I’m a ‘pop’ girl.
At any rate, me and my pop drinking self arrived at said elementary school to interview with the principal, a white man, but a lifelong east-sider. Later, he would tell me how disappointed he was initially with the caliber of talent the central office had thrown his way that particular day—apparently, I had asked him how many of the children in the school lived on farms. I don’t remember that, but he took it as a portent of my unsuitability as an inner city sixth grade teacher. I must have done something right, though, because he hired me. I was ecstatic! I had my very first real job!
Then I learned that I would be replacing Mr. U., an elderly gentleman who was legally blind and was being forced to retire because he couldn’t see. Understand that I’m not trying to discriminate against those who are visually impaired, but the sense of sight is a rather handy tool when teaching inner city sixth graders. Maybe I was the first candidate sent from the central office without a significant sight impairment or maybe I was the only one stupid enough to replace a blind man, I don’t know.
Just as it was during my first few weeks as a new mother, my first few weeks as one of three sixth grade teachers at IPS John Hope School #26 remain a blur. For the very first time in my life, I was exposed to the variances and differences between my white, white, really white self, and the mostly African-American and Latino children—all 32 of them—in my class. Oh, boy.
I promptly informed all 32 of my little charges that the party was over, that I had perfect 20/20 vision (lied), and that I wasn’t taking any crap from any of them. Yeah. I was the boss of them now. Little did I know how much they already hated me—not because I could see, not because I was white, but because they were so attached to their former teacher. These kids loved Mr. U., they had been very protective of him, and despite his limitations, he had, apparently, managed to love them back.
So it was my first class of children who took me to school. I learned that I was, indeed, a ‘honky bitch’ and a ‘cracker’, and that I was ‘country’. They asked me how many babies I had, so I took that as a teachable moment and introduced an impromptu lesson on titles, telling them, “My name is Miss Abercrombie. That means that I’m not married.” They looked at me and said, “So?” They made fun of the way I talked, they ridiculed me because I was so painfully naïve about who they were and what their lives were about, and they took every opportunity to tell other teachers in the building how mean and hateful I was. They were rude, disrespectful, undisciplined, noisy, and had no interest at all in learning anything that I had to teach them. It was a miserable job, and I cried every Sunday night because I wasn’t sure I could face another week of it.
The worst day of my life that year was when I was called into the principal’s office to face him, the school’s social worker, an angry mother, and a detective from the sex crimes unit of IMPD. I was interrogated about one of my students—a twelve year old, who, I was told, was nearly four months pregnant. Apparently, the piece of garbage who impregnated her had been coming to my classroom to pick her up each afternoon, and I had let him. He had told me that he was her brother, and that their mother had asked that he walk her home. When I tearfully explained this, the girl’s mother looked me dead in the eye and said, “Amy ain’t got no brother.”
As awful as things sounded, a change began to take place between my students and me. I’m not quite sure when the turning point was that year, but after awhile, I began to grow rather attached to all 32 of those little boogers, and they, in turn, were much nicer to me. I even grew attached to the girl with a perpetual case of head lice, the young man who routinely brought kitchen knives and wads of hundred dollar bills to school, the little cutie who had seven brothers and sisters all with different last names, and all three Tyeishas.
I even stood up to the one mother who came into my room demanding to know why a white woman thought she was good enough to be her daughter’s teacher. She threatened me, even backing me up against a wall with a balled up fist ready to deliver a sound upper cut to my face. In an uncharacteristic burst of courage, I faced her down and challenged her to bring it. I was, after all, in much better shape, was wearing flats, and was decidedly more sober than she was. She backed down.
This is not a story meant to warm your heart and make you all gooey inside because you know someone noble enough who taught “the least of these” under difficult circumstances. No, my point is this: I am a better person because I had those 32 little boogers and later hundreds and hundreds of others as my students. What many people fail to understand about teachers is that no matter how awful a kid in your class can be, you still have some relationship—some attachment to him or her. My eight years in the Indianapolis Public schools and my subsequent years in a suburban middle school have made me a better person, especially when it comes to how I look at people who come from different backgrounds. I was the one who learned from them.
I have a feeling—a portent, if you will—that in the next few days this country is going to erupt in some kind of turmoil over the untimely and unfortunate demise of a kid who could have been one of my little boogers. I also have a sick feeling that that this turmoil could undo so much of what so many of us—Black, White, Latino, Asian, or otherwise—have accomplished as human beings for the past sixty years. Let’s face it: It is impossible to look at the world through a colorless prism. Since we do live in the greatest country on the planet–the greatest, not the most perfect–can we not, instead, let our justice system do its job? To do otherwise is unbecoming of us as Americans and as members of the human race.
It’s not much wonder that my very first class of sixth graders were so wary of me. Their beloved Mr. U. was unable to see them, so he most likely valued each of them according to their behavior, their character, and their uniqueness. Once I entered the picture, I’m sure they believed that I would see them otherwise—as poor, ghetto, thuggish, or white-trash. It took a lot of time, tears, and teaching, but in the end, I hope I was able to look at each of them through a colorful prism and regard them by how they changed my life forever and shaped me into the person I am today.