Fiercely UU: Choosing to leave the system
Fiercely UU is a new blog series where Unitarian Universalist young adults tell stories about what our faith requires of us and how they follow that call. To be fiercely UU is to proclaim human worth and interdependence. In an individualist, greed-based, shame and fear fueled white supremacist patriarchy, we say no to isolation and oppression and yes to radical love and covenanted connection. – Ed.
Choosing to leave the system
I was a sixth grader, big glasses and crooked teeth, always hiding my messy hair behind a book. I would sit in Social Studies class and the kid who sat in front of me would turn around once or twice a class period, and say “Ching Chong” to me. Or other students would ask me if I was related to the one other Asian kid in our grade. When I replied that I wasn’t, they would then ask if we were dating.
Things got better when I went to high school. It was a magnet high school that was much more diverse. There were so many more students that looked like me. But it also felt like two schools within one school. There were so many students—mostly black and brown students—who I never saw in my Honors or Advanced Placement classes. I took a sewing class and sat next to students that weren’t in any of my English or history or science or Social Studies classes. They weren’t on the college track. This unsettled me, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
It’s six years after I’ve graduated from high school. I’m back in high school but I’m on the other side now. I’ve got the big desk in the corner. I’ve just started teaching freshman English a few months ago, and I’m grading papers after school. All of a sudden someone bursts in through my classroom door.
“I heard there was an Asian teacher here now!”
An Asian-American girl unfamiliar to me hurtles in from the hallways. She has a big grin on her face. She isn’t one of my freshmen students. She’s a senior it turns out. But she is so excited to see an Asian-American teacher. Her exuberant happiness rubs off on me, and I’m smiling for the rest of the afternoon. I imagine she feels how I felt when I went to high school and finally saw more faces that looked like mine.
But the school that I taught at still had the same problems that my high school had as well. We were really two schools under one roof. I had my honors classes that were filled mostly with white students, and a handful of Black, Hispanic, and Asian students. My standard classes were filled mostly with minority students—Black and Hispanic students. Some of them didn’t want to be in class or in school. They didn’t see the point of reading boring books that were written so long ago. Many of my white honors students didn’t see the point either, but knew that they needed to play the game of school. Many of my Black and Hispanic students knew that the game was already rigged against them.
That year, my local public library had some lectures from the nearby college about American history and the strong, rooted, pervasive reach of white supremacy. I had never heard about redlining and was shocked to hear about how recent so many racist policies had been. And then I was surprised at my shock. Wasn’t I seeing these policies play out every day at my school? In my very classroom? Wasn’t I seeing it in the lists of students who were suspended? Wasn’t I seeing it in the lists of authors that are approved for classroom reading? Wasn’t I seeing it in the different ways I myself treated my honors classes and my standard classes?
I’m reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s words from Between the World and Me:
“I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. …Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them.”
I feel accused. How many times had I wished that my students would sit down and be quiet and do the work that I had set out for them? How many times was I frustrated that I couldn’t provide an adequate reason for why we were doing something in class or for homework? I had always, if not loved school, at least thrived under the rules and the deadlines. But here were students who did not see the point of school, who knew that school did not see them for who they truly are. That in the system, they were just another black or brown face. Another statistic in another presentation about the achievement gap. Another suspension or another absent kid. That in the system, they weren’t artists or musicians or creators or dreamers.
That’s not to say that there weren’t people who cared. I saw teachers talking to students one-on-one, face-to-face before school, during school, after school. Asking about their day, their friends, their families. Telling them that they saw their hurt and frustration. Teachers and parents and guidance counselors and librarians and social workers and coaches who knew their stories and their dreams and their heartaches. I wanted to inspire, to motivate, to teach. But I was a pushover, not holding my ground when a student misbehaved. I felt so complicit in the system, that my personal failings as a teacher were pushing my students further and further behind. I couldn’t get my students excited about reading books that didn’t matter to them, that didn’t matter enough to me. I couldn’t handle the misbehavior of highschoolers. I wasn’t enough to change the system. I wasn’t enough even inside the system.
It didn’t feel like I was upholding the inherent worth and dignity of every person when I was giving out detentions and in-school suspensions. It didn’t feel like I was upholding justice in human relations when almost all of the books we read were by white men. It didn’t feel like I was encouraging a free and responsible search for truth and meaning when so much of what we did in class was rote and prescribed. One of my students told me that his teachers always tell him at the beginning of the year that he’ll learn something new and valuable this coming year, but that in all of his years in school, it hadn’t come true yet. Hearing that I felt saddened, angry, and guilty.
I’m no longer a teacher. Selfishly, I miss being able to tell people that I am a teacher. I miss having students drop by my classroom after school to chat with me about how their day went and about the play that they were auditioning for or their chemistry quiz that they were worried about. I miss seeing someone’s eyes light up when she finds a book that really speaks to her and she can’t put it down. I miss reading someone’s heartfelt words about an important moment or person in his life. But I don’t miss the tears and the sleepless nights worrying about my incompetence having a lasting impact on the students who need a good teacher the most. I am no longer in a classroom, but I still want to work to level that imbalance. To somehow chip away at the system that devalues our students. To somehow tell students that they matter.
Jessica is a UU young adult who was willing to share her story with us, but wanted to refrain from adding a bio, last name or photo. We appreciate her contribution to Fiercely UU!