Low expectations are the worst form of racism.
—Sally Rudel, former assistant principal, South High School, Minneapolis
It’s 7:30 on a chilly October morning. I’m writing in my journal and peering out the window. I love the early morning, especially in the fall when I can take in the remainder of the nighttime view and witness the spectacular autumn sunrise.
I live two and a half miles from downtown Minneapolis. However, the city skyline looks like it’s right outside my window. On a clear night the skyscrapers remind me of sentinels standing guard over the University of Minnesota’s imposing West Bank Office Building, which sits rooted firmly in the ground across the freeway, seemingly touching the distance from my place.
Panning slightly to the right, orange lights move in perfect synchronicity, like a chorus line, atop a silo high above the city. Each hoofer gets her moment onstage as the lights spell out “G-o-l-d M-e-d-a-l F-l-o-u-r,” illuminating the old mill that has been converted to a museum to educate the public about Minneapolis’s legendary flour industry.
Straight ahead a series of bridges mark the communities on the East and West Banks of the Mississippi River. On the first bridge, the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, an arc of green lights casts mysterious shadows over the next bridge, which crosses the river from Third Avenue. As my gaze moves in closer to my neighborhood, I see two rows of yellow lights slanting downward beneath the Stone Arch Bridge. They kiss the river and tip their hats, alerting night-floating barges of potential danger.
Just as the sun is about to make its appearance, caravans of yellow school buses cross the bridge directly in front of my window. One caravan crosses west to east, the other in the opposite direction. As I glance at the children bouncing around inside the buses, I wonder how many of them began their day with a nourishing breakfast and how many are waiting to get to school for free or reduced-price meals? How many were encouraged to do their homework last night? How many witnessed violence in their neighborhood or experienced it in their homes? How many children boarded the bus from a homeless shelter? How many homeless children will miss school today because their families couldn’t find shelter last night? Where are the children who have run away from unbearable home environments? Have they found their way to safe places, alternative schools, perhaps? How many children on those buses are native English speakers? Which ones speak Ebonics as their mother tongue? Which children dreaded getting on the bus this morning, knowing they would have to face a bully? And who are the children who couldn’t wait to get on the bus so they could harass a child whom they consider an easy mark? I wonder which children will be greeted this morning by a smiling teacher, happy to see them, and which ones will be greeted by teachers who will take the glint out of their eyes.
An hour ago, rush-hour traffic began to whiz by on the freeway. I wondered how many of the commuters were teachers on their way to school. How many of those teachers were driving into an urban school from a suburban area? Which ones were driving from one city neighborhood to another? Who among those teachers slept well last night and left home this morning with a full heart? How many fought with their partner or their children before leaving home this morning? How many are lonely? Which teachers are excited to be going to school this morning and will greet their students with a smile? And I wonder how many of those teachers want to know all they can about the children in their charge in order to more effectively help them learn. Which ones are discouraged? Which ones are frustrated because classroom size prevents them from giving students the attention they need and deserve? Which of the white teachers have allowed racism to color their perceptions of children of color? Which teachers with dark skin take the rage and powerlessness of internalized racism out on students who look like themselves or students from other communities of color? Which teachers are burned out on teaching?
Later, when it is time to go to the office, I will drive my sleek red Honda out onto the street. If I turn right and drive up to the Seven Corners area, I will see students and professors walking to and from classes at the University of Minnesota, actors and dancers going to work at one of the theaters in the district, and travelers coming and going from the Holiday Inn. If I keep driving I will see people from around the globe: Somali women, young and old, dressed in colorful hijab; Indians garbed in saris and turbans; people with Arabic, Asian, and African features, many of them students, many refugees. I wonder how many will be shunned today or denied something because of their accent or the way they look. I wonder how many of their children will be harassed at school, labeled as terrorists.
If instead I turn left onto the street that will take me to Mississippi River Parkway, the scenic drive that accompanies the river, I will see cars parked along the street, many with U of M stickers glued to their rear windshields. If I drive a half-block in that direction, I will pass a row of low-income housing units that are neatly hidden from the view of the campus.
Last Saturday afternoon, when I turned in that direction on my way to the supermarket, I saw three grungy-looking adolescents walk toward a man who was ambling toward his parked car, a thin white man dressed in jeans, a Lands’ End vest covering a blue-and-gray-plaid flannel shirt, and a long ponytail swinging down the middle of his back. When he saw the youths, he picked up his pace, quickly unlocked his car, jumped in, and took off, leaving thick black exhaust from his tailpipe trailing behind and blurring his Who Will Save the Children? bumper sticker.
The youths moved back into the street and waved their arms, gesturing for me to stop. I rolled down my window and listened as the first young man, a hefty Latino youth, explained that the three friends were raising money for a field trip they wanted to attend with the neighborhood community center. The second, a tall, extremely handsome young man whose skin color and hair texture caused me to guess that one of his parents is Black and the other white, nodded in eager agreement. The third, a skinny blonde girl made the request for a five-dollar donation. “I don’t have any cash right now,” I responded and promised to stop back by when I was finished shopping. For the next few minutes, we enjoyed an animated conversation as they told me about their field trip and asked questions about my car and my long, silver dreadlocks.
I drove away feeling sad, because at such a young age those kids are already so accustomed to people turning their backs on them in fear, that it doesn’t faze them, at least not outwardly. However, it’s common knowledge that unless there are caring adults in their lives—at home, at school, at church, in their community—they are in danger of becoming the next generation’s statistics. The two boys are in danger of becoming chemically dependent, spending much of their lives behind bars or meeting an early death, and the girl may join a class of children that America prefers not to acknowledge: inner-city white kids from low-income households who become teen parents, gang bangers, drug dealers, addicts, or worse.
FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS I served as one of SASE’s writers-in-residence, visiting parenting classes for teen parents, primarily at South High School. Because most of the advertising I have seen about teen pregnancy prevention is directed to African American girls, my initial expectation was that I would use my personal experience as an African American teenage mother to encourage young Black moms. I was surprised that there were many white kids in the classes I visited. In one classroom I was also delighted to see young fathers participating side by side with their partners. It was refreshing to work with a teacher who acknowledged that the girls, white or Black, did not become pregnant by themselves.
The numbers of white youths involved in the teen parenting programs that I visited aroused my curiosity about the demographics of teen pregnancies. A search of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy’s website reveals that while the rate of pregnancy among African American teens surpasses that of other races, the actual number of teen pregnancies reported in the United States in the year 2000 was 787,610. Of that number, 346,980 were white teens and 235,650 were African American. The remaining kids were listed as Latino. In that same year, Minnesota reported 5,580 white teen pregnancies and 1,400 African American. My surprise turned to anger and frustration when I returned to the site’s homepage. In less than a minute, six photos of teen parents flashed. Two or three young parents were pictured in each photo, but five of the six photos featured Black kids.
I saw that Website in 2009. I recently took a look at www.HHS.gov to see if the numbers in Minnesota have changed. I learned that in 2016, there were 1,073 live births reported in non-Hispanic white communities, 396 in non-Hispanic Black communities, 156 in American Indian and Alaska Native communities, 189 in Asian and Pacific Islander communities, and 422 in Hispanic communities. Why is it that stereotypes are so ingrained, so pervasive that an organization can support the very misinformation that it disputes?
I DROVE SLOWLY up the river parkway remembering when my children were teenagers. We didn’t live in a beautiful condominium back then, nor did I own a sporty red car. Our living conditions were as grim as the conditions I imagined the kids I had just left were living in. I was a divorced single mother struggling to feed five children while also trying to cope with what I now recognize as depression. I wanted to be a productive member of society, yet I also wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, an option that I could ill afford. But it was important to me that my face be the last one my children saw when they left for school in the morning and that I be there with snacks ready when they returned home after school. At the same time, I wanted to instill in my children a deep knowing that the poverty they were growing up in was not a life sentence, that they could have better lives as adults.
I resolved my dilemma in part by starting my home-based secretarial service and teaching my children the practical skills of typing and proofreading. In addition, I enlisted the services of Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Hospitality House, a faith-based youth-serving organization based in Minneapolis. I insisted that my children’s Big Brothers and Big Sisters be African American so that they could see living examples of what they could become. My younger son, Julian, recently told me that having a Big Brother and being involved in the programs at Hospitality House were the major factors that helped him resist negative pressures from his peer group.
MORE THAN FIFTY YEARS AGO, in 1955, the film Blackboard Jungle was released. The story, based on a novel with the same title by Evan Hunter, revolves around Richard Dadier, an idealistic English teacher on his first job in an all-male high school in a big city. The school is plagued by gang violence, but the teacher finds himself surrounded by apathetic teachers and a principal who doesn’t want to admit that the school has discipline problems. One of the film’s stars is the magnificent actor Sidney Poitier, who plays the role of Gregory Miller, one of only five or six African American students in the school, and the only black actor in the film with a speaking part.
At the beginning of the film, none of Mr. Dadier’s students likes their new teacher, including Gregory Miller and Artie West, a gloomy, morose, white gang leader who has uncanny control over the other class members who look up to him and fear him. However, Dadier soon notices that Miller is the most intelligent student in the school—and the least bitter. Miller doesn’t get perturbed when his classmates call him “black boy” and make other derogatory remarks that make references to the very dark tone of his skin. During the course of the film, Dadier gradually wins Miller over, and by the end Miller becomes the teacher’s sidekick, breaking up the gangs and bringing peace to the school. In many ways, the Gregory Miller character reminds me of Yoda—the all-wise, all-knowing, unflappable, and completely asexual Jedi master of Star Wars—except that he isn’t green.
I was a student in the Minneapolis Public Schools in the 1950s and ’60s, and even though I was a girl, my experience was nothing like what Gregory Miller experienced in Blackboard Jungle. Nor were the experiences of my male peers. When we were growing up, our south side Minneapolis neighborhood was undergoing the classic American transition: Blacks were moving into the neighborhood and whites were fleeing to the suburbs. Like Gregory Miller, I was one of a handful of Black students in the schools I attended. But unlike Miller, none of us was singled out as wise or brilliant leaders. In fact, the Black students were hardly noticed unless our skin was light or a teacher wanted to humiliate us.
I remember talking with a male friend, Archie Givens Jr., who related a story that is typical of what our generation experienced in the Minneapolis Public Schools: “I remember going to a college fair and feeling excited that I was going to have an opportunity to see what various colleges offered,” he said. “But when we got there, a man from Goodyear Tire Company called all of the Black boys into a separate room, and instead of encouraging us to go to college he told us about the great careers we should consider in auto repair. I remember vividly how humiliating it was, first of all, to see the white kids watching as the Black boys were called to the side as though we were criminals, and then to be told that we weren’t good enough to go to college.”
It’s a good thing Givens’s family taught him to believe in the importance of books, education, and ideas. It’s a good thing his parents instilled in him the kind of pride and confidence that encouraged him to believe in himself. He never doubted that he was qualified to do more with his life than repair cars. Today, he holds a master’s degree in hospital administration and presides over both the Givens Foundation for African American Literature and the Givens Collection of African American Literature. Located at the University of Minnesota, the collection is one of the largest, most distinguished archives of its kind in the world.
WHEN I REACHED THE SUPERMARKET I parked my car, went in, grabbed a shopping cart, and began my stroll through the aisles. It was Saturday afternoon, so there were many young parents with children of all ages in tow. Some of the families were clearly enjoying their shopping trip, but there were other families who were struggling. The children were screaming and the parents were trying to quiet them or were threatening them.
As I watched the families, I tried to determine which of the children were successful in school. I remembered how confusing school was for me. Related to this idea, I hope teachers will learn two things from my experience. First, I encourage teachers to expect that the assumptions you make about your students are likely not correct: it is important that you understand that things aren’t always the way they seem. The student who tends to act out, no matter their race or ethnicity, is more than likely suffering in ways they don’t know how to express in positive ways. Second, I would ask you to know, and be okay with, the fact that you may never be the person to see the results of any good work you do with difficult students. Yet these students may be forever changed by your good work.
From elementary school until I dropped out in high school, my best grades were always in the language arts. Teachers seemed puzzled by my ability to switch back and forth between standard English in the classroom to what is now termed Ebonics when I was with my peers. But rather than praising me for my bilingual skills, my teachers tried to make me use standard English in all situations, and some tried to make me use my unfamiliar right hand to write with, giving me the message, in more ways than one, that I was not acceptable the way I was. To make matters worse, the same teachers who acknowledged my talent in the language arts led me to believe that I would be wasting my time if I considered becoming anything more than a low-level clerical worker.
In the 1950s and 1960s, our bilingualism was not honored by the people who held authority over our education. Unfortunately, that is still the case. As the African American linguist Lisa Delpit points out in her groundbreaking essay “No Kinda Sense,” “Our language has always been a part of our very souls. When we are with our own, we revel in the rhythms and cadences of connection, in the ‘sho nuf’s’ and ‘what go roun’ come roun’s’ and in the ‘ain’t nothin’ like the real thing’s.’” I was the same as most of my peers: we all spoke two languages, and our first language was not acknowledged or accepted by the people in authority.
By the time I reached my teens, the principal’s office had become my second home. I fought with other students, talked back to teachers, and was often suspended from school. I believe that most people, both my peers and the adults in my life, saw me as selfish, lazy, and uncaring. In truth, I was a shy girl who had successfully constructed a believable image of female bravado in order to mask considerable emotional pain I was suffering because of my life conditions. The exception was my eighth grade English teacher, Miss Johnson, who seemed to understand that my negative behaviors coupled with my propensity for daydreaming masked a fertile, imaginative mind. Instead of punishing me, she encouraged me. Unfortunately, by the time she came into my life, a pattern had been set.
At the age of seventeen, I became a teenage mother and dropped out of school and, for the next thirty years, lived a chaotic life that included a failed marriage, single parenthood, and untreated depression with all of its ramifications. Yet Miss Johnson’s encouragement stayed with me and eventually led me to pursue a career in the literary arts. I’m proud that my five children are living successful lives with impressive careers and strong, loving families.
Because memory isn’t always accurate, I am aware that the facts about my interactions with Miss Johnson may be different from what I remember. I may very well be romanticizing her. But there is no mistake about the emotional memory that has stayed under my skin since eighth grade.
There is no doubting the lasting power that teachers have in shaping children’s lives, for good or for ill. It is very likely that if she is still living Miss Johnson forgot about me a long time ago. But even if she does remember me, she doesn’t know that she saved my life. If I could find her today, I would tell her so. I would also tell her that I try to emulate her example with my own students.
As I walked through the supermarket that Saturday I hoped that twenty years from then the kids from the housing project will have a Miss Johnson stored in their memories. But my mind also floated back to the ponytailed man who turned his back on them, and I felt dismayed that after all of the work that has been done over the past three decades to try to erase racism and classism, they are still pervasive in American society. Not only in school but in most other parts of our lives, and often in subtle ways.
ONE YEAR I joined a weight loss program. I was impressed with the leader, who was a fabulous presenter. She mentioned that she was a teacher, and I thought her students were really blessed to have such a knowledgeable teacher who presents so clearly. At the end of each meeting, new members were invited to stay around for an orientation. I was the only new member the day I joined and listened intently and appreciatively as she briefly explained the program and answered my questions.
Two weeks later, a friend joined me. We had planned to go to the gym and work out afterward, so I stayed for her orientation. I was taken aback when the leader explained the program in detail to my friend, who is white. She even gave her handouts and recipes, saying that she gives those things to all new members. Did I miss something? I looked through everything I had collected since I started the program, but nowhere were the items that the leader claimed that she gives to all new members. When I mentioned that I hadn’t received those handouts during my orientation, the leader looked at me blankly—a look that in retrospect I realized she had given me during my orientation. Her response was an offhanded: “Oh, I didn’t give them to you?” She gave me the items as she continued the animated conversation she was having with my friend.
For the next few weeks I watched in horror as the leader subtly passed over the other two Black members of the group or gave them minimal attention. In my mind, those adults became the students of color who have to face this woman every day in her classroom, and my memory took me back to my own school years and to those of my children. It also caused me to think of my grandchildren, who are students in Twin Cities public schools now.
Memory took me back to my middle daughter Tania’s junior year in high school. On conference night we moved from teacher to teacher, all with high praises for her academic achievements. At one point, we were waiting in line for a teacher who was having an especially long conference with another child’s parents, when one of the school counselors, Chester McCoy, stopped to talk with us and complimented my daughter on her intelligence and her consistently high GPA.
“Where do you plan to go to college?” he asked. Mr. McCoy, a Black man, always showed great interest in the African American students.
“The U, I guess,” Tania responded, referring to the University of Minnesota.
“Why don’t you consider Vassar or Wellesley?” he asked, a sincere smile spreading across his face.
We hadn’t started looking at colleges yet, but Tania had already expressed discomfort about going to the University of Minnesota, a very large school. Mr. McCoy’s comment was just what we needed to hear. Tania and I looked at each other, and the decision was made in that instant. She would apply to smaller, more prestigious colleges as well as the U.
The morning after she received her letter of acceptance to Vassar College, Tania left for school excited to tell Mr. McCoy. But to my dismay, she came home that evening, shoulders slumped, as she tearfully recalled Mr. McCoy proudly announcing her acceptance to teachers and other counselors. One counselor, a white woman, started what seemed like a chain reaction of discouragement, assuring Tania that she was out of her league. “My daughter did just fine at the U,” the counselor remarked in a condescending tone. Tania heard similar remarks from teachers, which caused her to doubt her abilities, causing me to have to spend a lot of time reassuring her.
Well, Tania did just fine at Vassar without the encouragement she should have received from her high school teachers. Later, she earned her MSW from the University of Minnesota, and today she loves her job as director of student life at PiM Arts High School, the Performing Institute of Minnesota.
IN HER BOOK A White Teacher Talks about Race, author Julie Landsman quotes a principal who once told her that within two weeks of arriving at this school, students can tell which teachers like them and which teachers do not: “They know exactly who will help them and exactly who will make them suffer, without assistance, through the credits necessary to graduate.” Though Ms. Landsman was referring to the alternative school where she taught, that statement is true no matter the type of school a child is enrolled in. Kids know when they’re being treated differently from other children, and it takes a powerful toll on their motivation to learn.
It is vitally important that teachers, no matter what their racial or ethnic background, be honest with themselves about how they feel about certain young people. My granddaughter, who attended a suburban school for the arts, observed that her fifth grade teacher consistently treated African American children differently from how she approached white kids. She spoke to them harshly and punished them for things the white kids got away with. At the same time, my eldest son experienced a discouraging school experience from a Black teacher at an alternative high school he attended where the student body was primarily African American. The teacher was extremely rigid, and it seemed that internalized racism caused her to convey a message through her behavior, that she was wasting her time and energy because “niggers like them” couldn’t learn anyway.
A little honest self-reflection will inform a teacher about whether s/he feels differently about one group of kids to another. For most of us, myself included, taking a look at the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to face can be uncomfortable. However, when you are responsible for children’s lives, this kind of honesty is vitally important.
Finally, along with my five children and my eight grandchildren, I urge teachers to have a sense of humor and to be flexible enough to understand that if a student’s learning style is different from what you are comfortable with, they should not be rendered unteachable. I am constantly surprised by the number of students in my college freshman composition class who are convinced that they do not have the ability to write well. On closer investigation, it becomes clear that their fear of writing is based on discouragement they experienced from a teacher in elementary, middle, or high school.
When I finished shopping, I pushed my cart through the cashier’s line and wrote a check for ten dollars over the amount. The cashier handed me my change, and I walked out of the supermarket, climbed into my car, and headed back down the parkway, hoping the three kids would still be there. There was a mixture of surprise and gratitude in their eyes when I put the money in the girl’s hand. Their field trip was the next weekend. I hope that they had a great time.