Saturday, February 2, 2013

Autobiography Pt. 6: Education

I recently have been asked by a few people about how I became interested in antiracism.  In helping myself move forward, I realize that I need to look back.  Also, I hope to convey the sense that I too am on a journey; I am a work in progress.  This is part of my story.

One day at the end of my first year as a graduate assistant, I found myself herding a group of Black four year-olds across the campus of a local university.  Preschool was one of those things on my “never going to…” list, yet here I was, talking about shapes and handing out juice cups and cookies.  It was one of the more adventurous tasks I had done so far in my volunteer work as a graduate student.  Since this local university partners with an urban elementary school, our team was responsible to host the annual “College for a Day” field trip for the Pre-K and Kindergarten classes.

The main emphasis of the field trip, as written in the objectives, seemed to revolve around identification of shapes.  I had sorted shapes for the shape scavenger hunt, compiled a shapes book with a song to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell,” and grouped the students by class with corresponding color-coded shape name tags.  However, as evidenced by the title, the overarching goal of the field trip was to familiarize children and their parents to the university.  This was not included in the written objectives, however.  I only became aware of the connection between the title of the field trip and the location of the scavenger hunt when the team leader commented as much.  

As I drove to university that morning, I had been thinking about the elementary school.  I had heard about the partnership all year, but I only visited the elementary school at the end of the year when I was asked to help with a parent night.  They needed another pair of hands to scoop ice cream for the banana splits given out at the end of a night of literacy activities.  I showed up with my team T-shirt and an ice scream scoop I had been instructed to bring.  As I walked in the door, I found my way to the cafeteria, where the university students were congregating.  Most of my night was spent splitting bananas, so I really didn’t have time to think about the parent night until the parents and the students made their way back to the cafeteria.  

All the university students also gathered around the ice cream to help with distribution.  It was at this moment that the whole scene hit me in Black and White:  all the people standing in line were Black, and all the people behind the counter handing out melting ice and browning bananas were White.  I suddenly had a feeling similar to when I had participated in mission trips to Mexico, except then we were a bunch of White people handing out plates of rice and beans with a donut on top to a large crowd of Brown people. I looked around at the other university students and wondered if they noticed what I did, but the ice cream was melting fast so I couldn’t ponder for long.  

The morning of the field trip as I waited in my car, I wondered how White education students were prepared to work in an all-Black school. Did they find it shocking that there was an all-Black school, as I did?  I knew I had only seen a few Black university students on campus, so I was pretty sure most of the students were White and from all-White schools and communities. Did they think about the fact that their schools had been all-White?  I knew that I hadn’t.  In fact, I would later find out that schools in our nation are almost as segregated now as they were in the "Jim Crow" era (Kozol, 2006).

Later in the day, as I helped guide the preschoolers and their parents across the university’s campus in search of shapes, I was keenly aware of “race” as we passed students, faculty and staff.  I started counting Black people that I saw, feeling almost embarrassed in front of the Black parents and children at the lack of people of color in the crowds.  The parents asked questions about the different buildings on campus, obviously more interested in the “College for a Day” emphasis than finding elusive shapes in the architecture.  The volunteer student who was acting as the group leader was indefatigable, however, keeping the group at a clipping pace in search of shapes.

Eventually, the group passively instituted a scenic break, which was facilitated by three Marines, two White and one Black, who were set up with a booth and a sit-up bar stationed in the center of campus.  The Marines were meant to recruit college students, but the Black Marine started chatting with the parents, as the White Marines stood back awkwardly. One parent attempted a few sit ups, and then the children wanted to try.  The Black Marine patiently hoisted four year-olds one by one up to the sit-up bar for the next twenty minutes, while the White Marines handed out the water bottles.  I wondered at myself internally at being so focused on “race” suddenly.

We made our way back to regroup as a team, where I finally relaxed from a long morning.  As we debriefed, we found out that one of the parents was mad because we hadn’t talked about going to college with the children.  One team member suggested that it wasn’t really age appropriate anyway. Now, I have a limited understanding of early childhood development and I don’t like to look foolish.  However, I thought about my own small child and what I might say to him about college.  I ventured, “I don’t know… could you say something about the ‘big kids’ school or something?  Like, ‘This is college and one day you can go here’?” Another person responded, “The children already know that!  The parents just don’t understand what we’re doing in our partnership with this school.”

I fell silent, feeling out of my league.  I didn’t have experience teaching kids.  I had always said I didn’t want to teach kids.  Something about being a parent of a toddler gave me new confidence, though.  I was pretty sure someone could tell the children about attending a university one day in an age appropriate way.  Also, I sensed that the parent had a legitimate complaint.  I walked myself through the field trip again, remembering how most of the Black faces I had seen on campus had been maintenance workers.  Intuitively, I understood that if I were Black I would not receive an implicit message that “one day you can go to college here.”  If the children received any implicit message that day it was, “This is where the White people go to college, but maybe someday you can be a janitor or a cafeteria worker here.”  

I decided to try again, “I wonder if the parent would have liked to hear that message, that ‘one day you can go here.’ Otherwise, do the kids realize they could go here someday?”  Another team member responded, “Well, I do wonder if it isn’t a little bit cruel to have them here.  I mean, most of them won’t end up here.  And if they do, they will probably be athletes.”  

Again, I had no response, although I felt there was definitely some stereotyping going on.  Was it cruel to bring the families?  I thought about the parents I had met that day.  They seemed pleased to be on campus.  They spoke of how happy they were that their children were at this elementary school, and how happy they were with the teacher this year.   From what I could tell, they had high aspirations for their children’s education.  It is not a stretch to say that they may have perceived the field trip to be the equivalent of a campus tour put on by the university's recruitment office.  What had been communicated to them, I wondered?  Which goals and objectives had they heard?  Did the shape scavenger hunt seem patronizing, while the university students failed to include information about the campus and the university?  There did not seem to be satisfactory answers, but I suddenly knew my research focus had to change.  I had to answer these questions.  

Autobiography Pt. 7: Anti-racism

  • Kozol, J. (2006). The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (Reprint.). Broadway.

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