Saturday, October 21, 2006

No Halloween

The kids at my school cannot wear masks or makeup or costumes on Halloween, and the teachers are loathe to celebrate it, also. The reason for this is “a safety issue,” and that is probably correct. On regular school days at our school, days that are not a beloved holiday, students are not allowed to wear hats, hoodies (sweatshirts with hoods), or anything other than their school uniform. The school uniform is a pale blue oxford shirt (either long or short sleeved) and khaki colored pants. Students are not allowed to wear anything over their uniforms, nor are they allowed to wear leggings (if they wear short pants), or pants with elastic at the ankles, or vests or sweaters or coats over their shirts. They are also not allowed to wear colored wrist bands or bandanas (do-rags), or anything else that might betray a gang affiliation.

My school has an extremely diverse student population which includes mostly African Americans but also Hispanics, Latinos, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Africans (from the continent, not America), South Americans (from many different countries), many European immigrants, and, yes, Euro Americans (white students). The most recent statistic at our school says we have something in the neighborhood of 22 languages spoken at our school, though Spanish is the most common non-English language, followed by French. Even so, most of the students are African American, and most of them were born and live right here in the city, where they will most likely spend their entire lives (according to statistics).

The “safety issue” at our school is gang activity, of course. Students bring all of the problems they face at home and on the streets right into the school with them every day, where the school administration works tirelessly to bar any and all activity that might interfere with learning. This is much easier said than done, and the methods used (while quite effective, actually) create an atmosphere at our school that much resembles prison, for both teachers and students. The reason for the ban against gang colors is to reduce the possibility of signaling to gang members within the school and to redirect focus back toward learning. The reason for no hoodies is that security cameras do no good if the perpetrator of a crime can conceal his or her identity by hiding his face inside a hood.

Which brings me back to why our students cannot wear Halloween costumes—they could be even more effective in concealing the identity of someone perpetrating a crime. So on the off chance that a few ne’er-do-well students may choose to participate in some shenanigans on Halloween, the entire student body of around 1800 students must suffer Halloween without costumes. This cheerless mood also carries over to cover “no parties” at our school. There is basically no celebrating of any kind.

The general philosophy is that these kids need rigorous discipline in order to achieve academically. It is generally (and somewhat accurately) assumed that the majority of the students come from undisciplined environments in which they have not been pushed to achieve, and that it is our responsibility to push them.

This is my first year teaching art in high school, and it has been quite an experience so far. I’ve only been at it for two months and during the first few weeks of school I was pretty sure that I hated it and was going to quit. The kids are challenging, and working in this kind of restricted environment does not make me feel safer, but rather more frustrated. I’ll let you off the hook: I now know that I love what I do and the kids that I teach, and if I were to go to a different school in a different district I might have an easier job and a nicer environment but I would be haunted by the students I left behind, and I might not have the awesome support that I get from my principals.

Right now my focus is on becoming a better teacher. At the moment I can tell that I will be great at it some day, but presently I feel lucky if I’m merely good at it more than half the time. The other half of the time is the experimenting and floundering that I do while learning how to be a good teacher. Most days are an uphill struggle to get my students to learn something, to want to learn something. Most days I’m figuring out what works and what doesn’t and trying not to waste too much time on the things that I find do not work.

The kids at my school are tough, but I love them. They are different than any kids I’ve ever been around before. I have read the statistics on urban schools and the challenges faced by teachers in these districts, but the challenges I face are nothing compared to the challenges that my students face every day. I have to remind myself of that every minute of every day. Then I have to force myself to forget it so that I can do the things that are necessary to get them to learn. So much of “the challenges they face” are things that, while real, become excuses for failure and for not even trying in the first place. Many of the kids are extremely invested in their perception of their lot in life. They are invested in being misunderstood. This is an urban mindset that is complicated by the natural tendency to be misunderstood that is inherent in the teenager. To allow a white schoolteacher to convince them that they can be something different, achieve something different would mean selling out in some way. It would mean that they don’t know themselves, their situation, their options, or their own potential as well as they think they do. It would mean that they could hope for something better. It would mean that they would be wrong about the allure of easy money on the street.

“Get money” is a phrase I hear over and over during the day at my school. These kids are obsessed by it. And at the expense of offending someone or sounding racist I’ll make a clarification: it is the African American kids who use this phrase. The Latino/Hispanic/Mexican-American kids at my school are just as likely to be involved in gangs as the African American kids; and any of the other kids from a multitude of other cultures (including my own) are also just as likely to get involved in gangs. But to deny that there are major cultural differences among these groups is to ignore reality. They are all similar in many ways, but they are also very dissimilar in the ways that they approach a variety of problems in life. They are also very prejudiced against each other. I hear racial slurs made by kids from one group against kids in another group and vice versa all day long every day. I am constantly working to raise my own cultural consciousness as well as that of my students. On most days I feel I am coming to understand them better, but my feeling is that most of them are driving the trenches between them deeper—it’s hard to tell, really, if anything I say or do gets through to them, and I may never know for sure.

Anyway, about “get money.” Most of the kids at my school are extremely poor, so it is easy to see how alluring a promise of easy money can be to them. That is the appeal of gangs. Not only do they promise these kids a family that they may not have, but they promise easy money. A couple of weeks ago there was a spike in crime in the cultural district of our city. The new gang initiation for young potential members is to run up to people on the street and snatch their cell phones out of their hands and run away. It’s like Oliver Twist in Baltimore. There’s a whole network of young crime “families” taking in these cast-offs, providing them with acceptance in exchange for a little petty crime. It’s easy to see the appeal of that. If you have no family of your own, or if your family is unavailable for whatever reason, and you have no money, and you have to take care of yourself, why not do these things for a “family” that apparently cares for you?

Another phrase that I hear over and over at my school throughout the day is “that’s my father” or “that’s my son.” I haven’t been there long enough to know whether these are direct references to gang relationships, but that’s what I suspect they are. In a world where the average life-expectancy of the African American male is about 25, a sixteen-year-old taking in a fourteen-year-old and calling him “son” can have great appeal for the fourteen-year-old who has no father (and statistically about 85% of these young men have no father at home).

The girls have just as many problems, and they are easy to guess. We have a daycare in our school, if that gives you an idea of the kinds of problems these girls have. We also have a health clinic that dispenses condoms and other birth control, as well as providing other basic school-related health care services. It is directly across the hall from the daycare center. One of my more on-the-ball senior girls astutely observed one day: “That’s working out real well, isn’t it?” She was being ironic, of course, referring to the fact that birth control is available directly across from the daycare center, but most of the girls are opting for involuntary parenthood rather than being seen going into the student health center. While I must be asked a hundred times a day for a pass to go to the health center for an aspirin, evidently not as many students are going there for birth control counseling as need to.

Of course, it is likely that not all of the sexual activity is voluntary. In the same way that gangs protect young men who perform duties for the “family,” I assume that young women are afforded certain protections for their involvement as well. I do not pretend to understand how all of this works, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to draw a few conclusions. Because of my heightened awareness of the gang activity at my school I have selected “The Wire” to be the next series I rent from Netflix. I never would have guessed that I would have to watch a crime drama to get to know my students better. This ain’t no “Beverly Hills 90120” for sure (to coin the vernacular of my students).

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