Dressed within the Cloak of Privilege

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Here is another paper I turned in for one of my graduate classes earlier this summer. Thoughts and comments are welcomed and encouraged below.

Dressed within the Cloak of Privilege

Throughout my life I’ve seen that it is uncommon for black men to receive their bachelors degree, hold self-sustaining employment, pursue a graduate degree, and understand their culture in a way that pushes them to give back in a focused and direct way to their community. Being a special
 education teacher for a high school with a 55% Black and 45% Latino
 student body, I see younger versions of myself each day. It’s
 empowering and devastating all in the same breathe. My students 
come to me older than the average high school freshman. Most enter
 my school as freshman at 16 years old, two years behind their age 
peers, many years behind academically, and are expected to earn 
their high school diploma at 20/21 years old. Approximately 50% of
 our students have Individual Education Plans (IEP’s). Most students 
I have come across present as learning disabled, emotionally
 disturbed, and many struggle to maintain regular attendance.

The
 student I chose to focus on for this project is the son of Jamaican 
immigrants, and moved to this country himself at a young age. I’ve
 taught Keanon each trimester this school year and have been 
frustrated, disheartened, amazed, inspired, and humbled by his
 ability to make a fortified stand in various situations. The once
 standoffish young man has come into his own and begun to play with
 knowledge and academics in front of my eyes. I see Keanon anywhere 
from 1-3 times each day throughout the week, so I benefit from
 getting to observe him frequently and often.

Growing up in the midwestern version of the Cosby house in
 Chicago’s south suburbs afforded me countless opportunities that my 
peers didn’t have. My father, is a retired Illinois State Police
 Officer, part-time community college professor, two-time small 
business owner, and nonprofit volunteer. I fondly remember watching
 my mother, a devoted Illinois Department of Children and Services 
social worker, sit glued to the dining room table into the wee 
hours of the morning where she completed schoolwork toward her two 
masters degrees in Social Work and Education. Being first 
generation college students completely shifted the trajectory of my
 parents’ lives, and resultantly the lives for my sister and I. 
Growing up I was told I was going to college. This expectation, so 
heavily ingrained in my adolescence, makes me feel unaccomplished 
even today. Earning my first graduate degree serves as the first
 major accolade I will have conceived and achieved on my own accord.

Understanding how class, sometimes known as 
privilege, can unfairly shift one’s trajectory of life is a common
 realization in the black community. It is apparent to the 
individuals that find successful ways to enter and flourish through 
class mobilization, the family members they leave behind, and most
 importantly both groups’ children, which is where I myself
 fall.

I’m from South Central, 
LA, a place that’s historically impoverished and pretty
 marginalized. I come from a low-income family, I’m a 
first-generation college student, and I’ve kind of seen how just by
 the fact that I left for school, in another neighborhood, I got 
access to all these other opportunities, and just sort of had had a
 different trajectory. And I’ve known that both, from on the ground 
level and becoming a researcher and understanding the policy level, 
sort of the higher level. That there’s sort of a system that’s in
 place that works against what it is that you would want everybody 
to be able to obtain, which is success. So, the way that I’ve kind
 of framed success for my own personal use is the ability to 
influence and impact that system from a lot of different vantage 
points. (Gordon, 2013)

The 
blazing contrast between my childhood, neighborhood, and education
 compared to those of my cousins is etched in my memory. Each time I
 went to visit family members we departed on an hour-long excursion 
out of the suburbs, past the large ominous rows of government 
housing (projects) as they cast down shadows on the expressway to my family 
members’ homes. That exit out of, and entrance into – always 
triggered my senses in a way that was foreign from my suburban 
haven.

I cannot guess what goes on in Keanon’s 
head. However, he is a proud Jamaican, first, and American second, 
if at all. He describes Jamaica as 3rd world, but pulls strength 
and energy from his heritage. It is a badge of honor for him; and
 it empowers him socially, which helps him push for achievement
 academically. Keanon, as many of my other students, doesn’t believe 
he can trust people. In fact most of my males felt as though they
 couldn’t trust people. Growing up, I never knew a world where I
 didn’t feel safe, largely because everynight I went to sleep with a police car parked infront of my house. The privilege of growing up in the middle class 
has in many ways blinded me to the strife and challenges the
 many black young men must overcome to succeed. This thought 
repeatedly plays in my mind as I create my teaching identity.

I am the product of gifted/honors/and AP 
program at my school. It was there that I was exposed to class disparities in education. Obvious to me then were inequalities in
 rigor, expectations, and the resulting productivity of general
 education classes as compared to more challenging courses. I was one of
 the few Black representatives from 4th grade, and watched
 subconsciously as each year fewer minorities filled the classes 
with me. One of my most memorable experiences occurred during my
 9th and 10th grade years in high school. I decided, as a young
 adult, that I didn’t feel like doing math homework every night
 anymore – a staple in the honors math courses. My unrelenting
 rebellion caused me to fail Honors Algebra my freshman year, and 
half of my sophomore school year. The administration and my parents 
moved me to a general education algebra class. I was shocked at the 
culture of low expectations, rowdy behavior, and slow pace of the 
class. Here, I sat, having bought into my label as talented and 
bright and I still struggled to pass a general education course 
several times less rigorous and structured than my otherwise full load 
of advanced classes. I ended up going to summer school to earn my 
math credit through an insultingly elementary computer program.

predator

Keanon like many of my students has low math 
computation skills. At 17, he again like many others, struggles
 with his basic times tables, mental math, number sense, and
 confidence with identifying and applying key pieces of information. 
My co-teacher and I try to keep an orderly classroom, but our more
 expressive students work their magic and ignite nonstop
 disturbances that must be managed and extinguished throughout 
instruction and independent practice. I can imagine this having a
 negative effect on Keanon and his peers. This trimester we have
 covered factoring, factoring and graphing, trigonometry, area, 
perimeter, and volume. Keanon is one of two students set to pass 
the course this cycle. However, deficiencies in his basic
 arithmetic are still present, and are being addressed in a separate
 computer math course that I also teach for Keanon.

As I develop my teacher identity I rejoiced at having 
built a connection with a student like Keanon. His strength, 
curiosity, steadfastness, and nobility emit from him each and
 everyday. Earning his acceptance has made me feel validated within
 my own self. He and I both respect what it took to grow our 
relationship to where it is. I am older, but I view Keanon as my
 partner and equal. In my mind we are currently in a space where we
 share knowledge and beliefs with one another. Keanon has begun
 sharing why his Rastafarian spirituality is so important to him. He 
allows me to respectfully receive his message, which in turn seems
 to make him even more comfortable being himself, and testing his 
own skin.

There must be a 
meeting of the minds if educators are to play an influential role 
in the development of their adolescent students. This meeting can 
occur around formal social interactions, depending on the goals for
 the “meeting.” They key is that the educators’ thinking be made as 
transparent as possible in order for students to access and connect 
with it or for them to contest and reject it in an informed manner. 
(Nakkula & Toshalis, 2010)

However, I can’t be blinded by Keanon’s social
 transformation in the school. His math skills still require serious 
development for him to enter this world fully suited to succeed. As 
a teacher it’s disheartening to know that throughout the school
 year we never created the opportunity to develop many of our 
student’s subpar foundational skills on top of their functional 
skills. Framing this positively, I feel empowered knowing I can use
 these growth areas to develop more specialized understanding of my 
craft including new and targeted instructional methods for next school year.

My parents made sure that I grew up with a strong 
foundation in humility and servitude. We understood that we
 experienced privilege. However, there are many people who do not, 
like my family members, many of my peers, and the foster children and families
 my mother often exposed us to. The fact that it is a rarity of 
African Americans to have consistent exposure to supportive 
educational, social, and class privileges such as these is
 mortifying to my soul. This serves as the primary motivation
 driving why I must always try to build others as long as I’m able. 
To many, this may seem disconnected, unrealistic, or too kumbaya as I like to describe. However, for me it is the foundation for why I am an educator, and the doubts serve to reinforce my fortitude for the craft. My life experiences have brought
 me to a place where I am knowledgeable, both theoretically and
 experientially, about privilege as a member of the minority group
 in observation. Through school and work experiences I can guess how 
those more closely positioned to the dominant class experience and are 
blinded by privilege. I know first hand how difficult it can be 
with and without a solid education for minorities that are expected 
to navigate their way, successfully, through institutions that 
fortify such privileges by luck, grit, and pulled up bootstraps. I 
try not to judge, but I do wonder how others, more heavily layered 
in privilege come to develop their own understanding of this issue, 
and whether it festers within their souls as it does mine.

photo

Now, as an educator, a huge chunk of my 
identity is tied into my own experiences and benefits from
 privilege. I therefore see and weigh a lot more of my performance
 with my students based on the person I am to them and for them, on 
top of the role I play as their academic and social educator over
 the next few years. In many ways, as is evident with Keanon, I’ve 
learned that I have focused more so on my students’ social
 development, than their academic development. Keanon himself has
 shown that even with his natural gifts for leadership, compromise, 
and inquisition, he still needs the basic academic skills to
 navigate the modern world, successfully, and out of harms way. As 
with Keanon, my own identities often shift between student of
 education, professional educator, and that same little black boy
 that absorbed so much inherently from my surroundings in 
Chicago.

Currently, I feel like I must show all 
of my students and peers that I/we can accomplish anything we set
 our minds to. I frequently identify the links between them as high 
school students, and myself as a graduate student. I show them my 
frustration and unconditional love for them in the classroom. I let
 them know when they’re letting me down and vice versa. I show them 
what difficult assignments and work looks like for me, and discuss
 why its important that they persevere through their own complaints
 about scribing as little as a paragraph. I explain how my job and 
life intertwines with theirs’ and how the 10 years they view, as a
 separation in age is more of a proximity that should be explored 
and utilized to their advantage. I definitely use them to foster my
 own growth and knowledge development.

This 
summer, my challenge is to strengthen how I stimulate and support 
my students academically. Similar to Keanon, I enjoy the feeling of
 being roused into action. I enjoy the idea of constantly polishing
 myself into an even better teacher. This year I’ve seen Keanon go
 from being extremely closed-minded to being prophetic about the 
importance of school, teachers, and learning. I’ve tried to make 
the connection for my students that they are role models for their
 younger brothers, sisters, and cousins as I undoubtedly am trying 
to be for them.

My students are creating and 
experiencing foundational events that shape their adolescence and
 will guide their adulthood. I am no different, even at the current
 stage of my life as a young professional. As students and teachers, 
we are co-creating our identities. Interestingly, I view myself as 
the student, or rather, feel that even as a teacher, I have a need 
to be educated and nurtured by experienced veterans and mentors. I 
am a teacher, and I teach everyday as my profession, but my role in 
life is that of the student. Like Keanon, I am challenging 
assumptions and learning how to create an image of myself that most
 closely represents my idea of self.

In short, adolescents [and adults] are 
in a near constant state of constructing their lives. Far from
 assuming or growing into a particular stage of development or
 simply adapting to an environment that determines development 
possibilities for them, [people] are actively creating development 
itself. It is largely this process of creating [oneself] and the
 worlds [we] inhabit that we call the construction of [life]…
Ultimately the meaning [you] make of [your] experiences is [yours], 
regardless of how it may match or conflict with ours… Given the 
magnitude of the consequences involved in self-construction, 
especially as [you] come to be realized in schools, the 
constructionist perspective is anything but academic or abstract. 
It is, rather the real-life heart and soul of [life] itself. 
(Nakkula & Toshalis, 2010)

Works Cited

Gordon, J. (Producer) (2013). Side conversations with Jullien The Innerviewer Gordon and non-profit manager education consultant [Web]. Retrieved from http://insidehustla.com/side-conversations/

Nakkula, M. J., & Toshalis, E. (2010). Understanding youth – adolescent development for educators. (3rd ed., p. 05, and pp. 8-9). Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

=================================

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– We often focus on our challenges, but have you taken a second to think about your privilege(s) and how they shape your view of the world?

– Privilege is just that… a privilege, something that not everyone is privy to. I’m not saying you should feel bad for the privileges you’ve attained or been born into. But, I do believe that it’s our duty to create a space for other people to benefit from the “access” our privileges have afforded us.

Be purposeful with your privilege(s), pay that shit forward!

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2 Comments

  1. My paternal great-grand father (your GG grand father) was a school teacher in Money, MS. (Money, MS is infamous because Emmit Till was murdered there in the 1950s.) His name was Rube Jordan. He was born about 20 years after the Civil War.

    It’s interesting to imagine what inspired him in his class room. Did he have the same kinds of feelings that you and I, and others have had regarding our students?

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn how he coped with the struggles/successes of the educational environment of his day (100 years ago).

    Is there something in the genes that was passed along to us through him that caused us to select education as an instrument for pursuing social change? Absolutely!

    It cannot be a coincidence!

  2. Pingback: Holding Two Stories, Holding Two Miracles | Skool Haze

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