Monday, May 6, 2013

Letter from Huck: The Diversity of My Experience

Out in Left Field proudly presents the fourteenth in a series of letters by an aspiring math teacher formerly known as "John Dewey." All personal and place names have been changed to protect privacy.

The other day I was at a middle school in a 7th grade math classroom. The class had taken the Common Core district assessment that I described and they now had to do their homework, which was difficult given that there are only 28 school days left to the school year, plus I’m only a sub, and the weather is nice.

In the midst of my telling multiple students to get in their seats and do their work, one boy confronted me and said, “You’re just picking on me because I’m Mexican.”

“No, I’m not,” I said.

He pointed to some students talking and said, “You didn’t tell them to be quiet.” True. I told some students on the other side of the room. I didn’t continue the argument but told him to sit down and do his work.

In my travels down the cultural divide, I have had to adjust from my student teaching days when all my classes were 100 percent Mexican students to my present situation in which my classes now are mixed and Mexicans are in the minority. Rules are in place in all schools against prejudicial and hate language--to the extent that middle-schoolers will sometimes try to blame someone for saying something that is racist in the hopes of getting that person in trouble. I have heard comments muttered about Mexicans, but nothing loud enough for me to “write anyone up”.

Since the incident with the Mexican boy, I’ve been thinking back to my student teaching days in the heart of strawberry country. My drive was a tiring one--an hour and fifteen minutes each way. The majority of the drive was along Highway 101, one of the major north-south highways of California. It took me past farms that grew lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, apples, avocados, alfalfa, and strawberries. The strawberry fields became more plentiful the closer I got to my destination.

A long bridge that crossed over a dry riverbed and the county line marked my entry into the city where my school was. There used to be shrubbery in front of the school but it was removed because it became a place where students could hide weapons. I was told this on my first day. I was also told that there are two gangs in the area, and there are gang signs for each. Displaying a gang sign while at school is grounds for suspension. Drinking bottles and water bottles are banned because students were putting alcoholic beverages in them. This was discovered the year before I started, when a student passed out and had to be taken to a hospital. Students can be suspended for fighting, for using racial and sexual slurs, for continued violations of rules, and for talking back to a teacher.

During my 15 weeks there, I did not come into contact with these things any more than I come into contact with the ills of society in my everyday life. What I did see were the effects of one-parent families, students having to miss school so they could care for their baby brothers or sisters on days both parents were working in the fields, or, in the case of a boy named Isaiah, missing school because of ongoing doctor appointments due to severe allergies. He was asthmatic, could not go near grass, and frequently experienced nausea and hives in addition to asthma attacks.

My supervising teacher, Tina, thought Isaiah’s allergies were because of the pesticides sprayed on the fields. I sometimes smelled pesticides when the helicopters would spray the various fields. I never saw the helicopters, but Tina would see them sometimes. She told me one day about a helicopter she saw spraying a field and the clouds of gas that spilled into the neighborhoods where kids were walking to school. “It’s no wonder we have so many kids with respiratory problems,” she said.

Isaiah was a quiet boy who managed to get the highest scores on tests in the class if he didn’t get too far behind in his homework. He didn’t like to speak up in class and so I got into the habit of leaving him alone—I could see he knew the material. One day, shortly after Tina returned to class after her father passed away, I was teaching and hadn’t noticed that Isaiah had his head down on his desk. Tina did, however, and she suddenly came over to him and asked if he were OK.

“Come on, Isaiah, I’ll take you to the nurse’s office. He stumbled to his feet and she grabbed hold of him to keep him from falling. I managed to continue through the day’s lesson, assuring the students Isaiah would be fine. And he was. Fifteen minutes later, Tina and Isaiah came back to class; he just needed a dose from an inhaler.

Mercifully, Tina did not mention that I should have been more aware of what was going on, and should have seen that Isaiah was ill. She didn’t need to. Since that time, I have made it a point to be more vigilant and have excused students who looked ill to go see the nurse.

My subbing assignments are no longer in the heart of strawberry country, though there are fields near some of the schools in which I sub. Also, as I said, my classes are now more “diverse,” to use a term I’ve never liked because it's phony. For one thing, there are some who would say that my totally homogeneous Mexican classes were diverse because they were non-white. Also, the term reminds me of the Weekly Reader exercises from long ago that asked students to find four “friends” in a picture of a parade or something similar. The “friends” of course would be the distinctly foreign people. The “friend” who thought I was picking on him was using diversity and school policy against racist actions to his advantage. He wasn’t very good at victimization and definitely needed improvement in math. I’m pulling for improvement in the latter.


Anonymous said...

I don't have any particular comment to make this time, but just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your post.

Lynne Diligent

Anonymous said...

I don't have any particular comment to make this time, but just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed your post.

Lynne Diligent