My first job was at an alternative school. Though almost every kid there was white, that school still managed to be racist. On MLK Day, they told our three black students they could stay home, but the white kids didn’t get this holiday.
Though not the first thing to rub me wrong at that school, it was the one I made a huge stink about.
After that, kids brought up race a lot, anything to get out of doing their work. Since I was supposedly teaching seven subjects in one room at the same time already, I tossed in racial knowledge for free. Either way, I got paid the same $12,000 for my year. Like their teacher, these kids had behavioral issues.
One boy in my class grabbed a handful of a girl’s blonde hair and pulled her on top of a desk; I didn’t think tossing a pink slip his way would block his fists. I got hurt that day. Another time, two boys were about to brawl, but I knew one. Standing in front of him, I kept my body between them. He had a razer blade in his hat, but I thought if I stayed put then he wouldn’t pull it out. I’m not trying to fashion myself into some kind of hero.
I’m saying this was chaos, and I was in the center. My own center was already chaos.
A Swastika Valentine
One of my uber-Aryan students hated my guts, so I tried to keep him at a distance. But one day, he made a production of splitting open a bright yellow capsule and snorting the contents off his desk. You don’t get to ignore that.
When I pointed to the hall, he snatched up something from his desk and stalked out. As I closed the door on nosy faces, he handed me a half-torn sheet of paper with a swastika he’d traced over so much he tore holes in the paper. It said, “I’m going to kill you, bitch.” You can’t imagine what you’ll do when handed a death threat, until it happens. What I did was bark like a drill sergeant at his back as he started to walk away from me, “Hey! Stop right now.”
That’s the upside to being a practicing alcoholic. Since you have a death-wish, you’re pretty ballsy. I marched him to the head lady’s office, handed him off. I didn’t break down until I hit the bathroom. But then I felt panic throughout my entire body. I saw that boy once more, a year later, at an AA meeting. The second we locked eyes, that same panic hit. As he started working his way through some people to get to me, I waited. He apologized for threatening to kill me, asking if I remembered that note.
Cackling about how messed up he was, he wanted me to laugh with him. Once in my car, I couldn’t stop shaking.
Managing Black Kids
After leaving treatment and getting sober, I was ready to find a real job, but people weren’t tossing those out like candy. Most principals wouldn’t even talk to me, figuring the kids would eat me alive. The first interview I got was at an all-black school; the black principal asked a question I didn’t even think to prepare for: “How are you gonna manage these black kids?”
Now, I’d prepped a great answer about classroom management, but the color part threw me good, so I stumbled my opening with “like I’d handle any other kids.” After that, he could barely fake interest in what I had to say. When I landed an interview at a second all-black school, a middle school, I came in ready for that same curveball, but race never came up. This principal was also a black man. His title was Doctor.
In that chat, he was sizing up my character based on what he felt when I spoke, as much as he was listening to my answers. He gave me my first real job. I was assigned to a team run by a black woman who’d taught there 30 years. Kids called her Mama Howard, and that’s what I ended up calling her too.
The Land of Savages
One day on bus duty, I was chatting with another white teacher whose company I usually enjoyed. She was saying she saw the dance group I’d put together who would be competing soon, and I was nodding proudly. Then, she says, “I can barely keep them behaved in the classroom. Good on you for teaching those savages to dance.”I couldn’t have been more shocked if she’d slapped me in the face. It wasn’t even anger that I felt. A deep pit in my stomach opened up, and I had no words. Walking in a fog to where I needed to be, I was nauseated. I was also confused to the point of dizziness.
I’d just come from a land of savages in that alternative school. I was in the land of children now. Until this school, I’d never felt safe inside a classroom. And now I realized my kids weren’t really safe either.
When I walked into Mama Howard’s room for our team meeting, she came out of her chair as soon as she saw my face. Waving away the rest of our team, she closed the door. I was having a hard time talking though. And it damn sure wasn’t to protect a white lady who made me an unwitting double agent. I was feeling intense shame at having been part of that conversation. More than anything else, the idea of laying something so grotesque at the feet of a woman I loved and admired made my bones feel like ice. She helped me talk, hugged me for a long time, and then instructed me not to think about it for another second—because she had it now. Though Dr. W was our boss, she called him by his first name. She handled that with him.
Compliments That Crawl on Your Skin
When Carmen came to the coliseum, I organized a field trip. None of us had ever seen an opera. Halfway in, I’m realizing opera sucks. I would have stayed until the end, since the kids paid for that trip, but something else was going on, from where I was sitting at the end of the row.
When a third white person leaned down to whisper a so-called compliment in my ear, about how well I was “handling these kids,” I swear to God Himself I thought I might open my jaw and swallow someone whole. When I passed a note down the line of kids, asking if they would mind ditching at intermission to hit McDonalds, a sea of thumbs popped up at me.
Coaching Black Boys
The football coach was a black man who announced at a teachers’ meeting to let him know if his players ever misbehaved in class—to send a note, and he’d come get them on task. When a couple of the footballers were cutting up one day and wouldn’t knock it off, I called in back-up. Coach said I could stay in the hall with them. And I’m glad I did, because I was not at all on board with his brand of tough love.
He started grabbing those boys by the fronts of their shirts, pushing them into the wall, calling them the worst word you could call a black child. Immediately, I was saying, “Coach, this is my fault. I overreacted. No, honestly, I did. They were barely talking. I’m so sorry I interrupted your day. Please, no, please—this is my fault.” And it was. When he left, neither of those boys would look me in the eye, and I couldn’t blame them. All three of us had tears we were focused on holding back. The best I could do was get them to glance at me for a second or two out of the corners of their eyes, when I spoke to them.
I promised to never call someone from outside our classroom again. I apologized to them with all the feeling I could, but they were focused on holding together their masculinity, so they shrugged at me in response.
Two years later, one of those boys came back and sat in class a while to visit. He’d heard I was leaving for my doctorate. He had the beginnings of a moustache, and I saw the man he was becoming. Before he left, he said he owed me an apology because the day that happened with Coach he’d thrown a rock at my car and left a dent in the door. I waved it off, saying I was such a bad driver that I had dents all over my car. But, he didn’t want me to wave it off. He needed me to accept his apology, so I did. But I understood his anger that day; what I’d done was a betrayal.
The Things That Upset White People
We’d read Romeo and Juliet, and that had gone well. The modernized movie with the cool cars and guns was out by then, so I could bribe them to read sections of it and then reward them with the movie scenes. I loved Much Ado About Nothing, and they were up for that one next. We circled our chairs, and got parts. I was reading as Dogberry because he had some naughty language. At some point, Dr. W had slipped in and held a finger to his mouth to keep the kids quiet. There I was, deep into one of Dogberry’s best speeches, thinking I’ve got them enthralled with my performance because no one’s making a peep.
It’s a funny scene where he’s accidentally calling himself an “ass” repeatedly, but he’s too self-important and pompous to know what he’s actually saying. When I looked up, several of them pointed behind me; there stood Dr. W. I felt the red rising in my face and neck. I started apologizing, saying ass was really a donkey in the line, but he said to keep going—just pop by his office after. Though we all had a good laugh as he left, the blush stayed on me. When I stepped in his office, I was already trying to justify the language, but he said, “No, no. Sit down.”
Turns out the teacher next door, a white lady, had complained that I had the kids reading material too advanced for them. She told him I would give them an inferiority complex and make them feel bad about themselves. Before I got three words out in defense, he held up his hand again. He told me to keep doing exactly what I was doing, but if anyone had comments on what we were reading to send them straight to him.
I know y’all don’t want to hear this again, but some white people really will complain about the stupidest things.
My dad’s advice whenever I took any job was to find a way to make myself invaluable. When I was working at a pizza place at 16 and wrecked my car, my boss drove a whole city over just to pick me up and bring me in with him. I’d made myself indispensable, like Dad said. That was one reason I started new programs at my new job, but I also wanted to create anything I could, anything I had some talent for, to show Dr. W he was right to believe in me.
I started a drama club, and we did several plays. I started a small dance team, teaching lyrical ballet. Any and all skills I had to bring to the table, I shared.
Language of the Marketplace
One of the hardest parts of that job was having to explain to them sometimes why their own unique voices, put in writing, wouldn’t work as they were for some things. When kids were trying to win essay contests and awards, I’d have to take their work and explain why they could only share their authentic voice in certain places, even though those were the most beautiful parts of the writing.
We had studied the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, so I had a vocabulary to explain what we needed to do and why. I told them it wasn’t right, and it wasn’t fair—but after they first wrote something in their own special voice, they would need to rewrite enough of it for an imagined audience of “old white men.”
I tried to make it sound fun, like we were in control, learning cool tricks and illusions. We could show we knew perfectly well how to follow those rules–but then sneak in moments to fly free and sing our own special songs.
That advice helped them. I know it did. But it never felt good. They call it the “language of the marketplace” or the “language of the academy,” and let me tell you—I could explore the inherent problems in those semantics all day. Audre Lorde spoke of this in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. And I believe her. However, if I were back in my classroom with those same kids today, I don’t think I could advise them any differently, without worrying they’d be hurt in the process.
When I started teaching kids in the Advanced classes, I moved down to a huge basement room. Dr. W apologized for its condition, because the room flooded anytime it rained, and it was sectioned off in awkward spots with huge columns. There were no windows, so it was unrelentingly beige. But I was delighted by the space, closets, and cabinets.
I brought rugs and beanbags and pillows–we’d pull up the rugs each night in case it rained, of course. I had over fifty stuffed Garfields in my collection, so they were sitting on shelves everywhere, that silly cat dressed as an angel, a devil, an athlete, Santa Claus, and so on. I printed off single letters on sheets of paper to make those columns into colorful pillars, saying things like “Peace” and “Courage” and “Believe.” Point being, I was a big old goofy goober, but we made that room into a playhouse.
We had to stand in our doors during class changes. One of my girls was heading in one day, eyes shining with water. I heard the tail-end of what some boys were saying to her, but it didn’t make sense, so I had to stop her in the doorway. “Are they calling you an oreo?” “Yes m’am,” she says. “Like the cookie.”
Looking at the question mark across my face, she explained they were saying she was only black outside–and white inside. She said she got teased for being light-skinned and then teased even more for being in the “smart kid” classes, so they said she was trying to be white. I was flummoxed. I could only say, “Well, Mama Howard keeps telling me I’m black inside, so it’s good we’re both in here to give each other some balance.” She giggled at that, so I added, “Pretty sure all our insides are red and gooshy.”
With us both playfully cringing about that image of people’s insides, she blinked back her tears, so she could deal with them another time. But, that moment stayed with both of us, and she had to do all the heavy lifting on it. I couldn’t do it for her, as much as I’d have wanted to.
I’ve only witnessed one true case of color blindness, based on race. And the spell only lasted two seconds. I’d been working with my group of eight girls on a lyrical dance to Sweet Honey and the Rock’s “We Are.” My Lord, they were so good. We had a chance to compete at the coliseum; when we walked in, we were all overwhelmed. There were a lot of schools there. All from the same district, about every kid there was black. But one of my kids spotted an anomaly across the room, warming up with her team.
She said, “Ooohh, look at that white girl over there. What is she doing?” Then after two beats, she looked at me and said in total sincerity, “I’m so sorry. I forgot you were white.”
She wasn’t kidding. Because we’d spent so much time together, there was love and respect on both sides. So, my color did disappear for an instant. But, all those emotions have to be there before color can disappear—even for two seconds.
Every other case of so-called color blindness is illusory. It’s a fantasy. Should we live in a color-blind society? Of course, we should. But we don’t. It’s almost always white people saying they don’t care if someone’s green or blue or plaid. This is not an argument; this is a downright baffling thing to say.
If you saw a plaid person, I think you’d shit yourself. If you are one of the people throwing in all the colors of the rainbow to make a point, just know the only thing you’re proving is that you don’t get it, not even a little bit. There aren’t green people. There aren’t blue people. And there aren’t people blind to race, unless it’s inconvenient to them, and they’re sick of talking about it. But, we can’t stop talking about it, until you stop talking about green people as a rebuttal.
We also can’t stop talking about it until you quit pretending that “all lives matter” is somehow a fair rebuttal. You are either purposely missing the point or pretending to miss it. Either one of those options is a bad one, based on deliberately choosing ignorance.
Tricked by Voodoo
Of course, all lives should matter. But, the groups who have to focus on one set of lives, drawing attention to that section of people, are doing that work because some lives are being treated like they don’t. You don’t have to like it—you just have to stop offering only noise in return. Here’s the “voodoo” I played in one story, as one white fella called it. In flagstone six, about the Puritans in Salem, I shifted topics and timeframes at the end. I’d been calling out names of some of these accused white women and white men, even a white preacher, all executed in this hysteria—George, John, Martha.
I had them feeling sorry for a white man named Giles who was smothered to death. Sure, he’d done something shitty that got his wife killed, but he was still an innocent, considering his circumstances. Poor Giles didn’t deserve to be killed on a public street. Then, right after, I slipped in another story about a man being smothered, Eric Garner. Many knew immediately who I meant; some white people were still in empathetic mode, after the names of those butchered white Christians, and it took them a second to know Eric wasn’t at Salem. They were mad as hornets because I’d pulled a switcheroo, like the evil witch that I am.
They didn’t appreciate getting all in their feelings about people who’d been killed and then having me toss in a black man’s name, when they had already convinced themselves that black man deserved his punishment. On the other side of things, one black man said if you could get past all the “Edith Bunker” stuff–which I’ll admit caught me in a laugh–there was a bit at the end that mattered. When I said that was an unusual half-compliment, he apologized for not giving a more thoughtful response. There’s something in his sentiment, though, that illuminates our larger problem.
The Devil’s Arithmetic
In my last year at the middle school, we watched the movie about a teenager who is dismissive of her Jewish family history and finds herself pulled into 1941, experiencing the horrors of a concentration camp. A tender girl sitting next to me was crying, so I reached over to hold her hand. When I did, I saw two boys behind her hiding their smiles. I kept my eyes on them to see if maybe they were tickled at something else, not paying attention to the movie. But, no, they were quietly laughing at the screaming girl on the screen.
Stopping the movie, I took advantage of a “teachable moment.” Leaning in so only they could hear me, I asked them to imagine we were watching a move on slavery—how they’d feel watching black families separated from one other, crying out for each other, and being murdered out of hatred, ignorance, and evil. They weren’t mad at me; they knew they were in the wrong, so we put the movie back on. I felt so sad in that moment though. Those boys weren’t bad kids. I knew them well.
But, when people don’t care at all about your pain for long enough, and they keep rubbing in your face just how little they care, it gets harder and harder to give a damn about someone else’s.
Behind the Curtain
Dr. W caught a lot of shit for this decision from some teachers and parents—Mama Howard let me know how much—but he let me be in charge of the MLK Day Program my last year at the school. Since I ran the drama club, dance club, and had a ton of space in my big basement classroom for teaching the Advanced Placement kids, it made sense. My brother and sister had years of show choir costumes, and I had dozens of dance costumes from old dance recitals. I brought in six bags filled with sequined vests and pants, dresses covered in sparkles, and feather boas.
We put together a show that included skits and ended with a number that covered decades of music, from Billie Holiday on top of a piano, to The Supremes and The Temptations, to Jimi Hendrix, to Michael Jackson…I mean, it was a show. We ended with the kids holding hands and singing “In the Name of Love.” The funny thing about that song is that I never hear the most often repeated line correctly, no matter how hard I try: “What more in the name of love?”
I heard something else then. Now, 25 years later, I play it and still hear the “wrong” words.
I want more in the name of love.