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.
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.
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)
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.
– 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!