Situations like the trial for the murder of young Trayvon Martin brings racism to the national consciousness and picks at the oozing scabs. Our language, our response, the pain we feel are on two sides of a line, a line which divides us by color. That line treats each of us racially from the time we take our first breath. But we have CHOICE and we can NAME that line (racism) and then denounce it in word, thought and deed. We all experience the national trauma of the country's racist history built on the foundation of cruel slavery, unique among all forms of slavery -- 1) based on color 2) human beings treated as chattel, violently stripped of all humanity 3) for one's whole life and whose babies are born into it and remain for their whole lives from the first moment they draw breath 4) purely economic reason with a recent history; as I told my students, for cold cash, not the passion of enmity. When I say all of us suffer from trauma of this national legacy, I mean all of us. However, the trauma is felt differently on opposite ends, as different as the namecalling which is in the news today: Cracker or slaveowner and the N word or your life is worth nothing; you can be dead by a cracker's whim, rich man or poor man. Racism serves a purpose in our country, so it's never been discarded. It divides us so we don't see who really interferes with this country's ideals that all people have the freedom to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We just get side tracked into Black and White. Black includes all peoples whose work is exploited for the running of things and it's based on pigment or some other physicality which easily sets us apart. And White includes light skinned people, rich or poor, perhaps reviled as part of an immigration wave, definitely exploited, kept poor, but there was the miniscule reward to insure safety and hold out a bit of promise on the basis of pigment if that race line is kept in place. For the sake of their grandchildren's safety, they felt they had to hide their northern or eastern European last names, hide or allow ancestry to be forgotten and inside in the hidden part of the heart that seed of slavery planted its seed as well as resentment and shame for having to give up one's cultural identity.
This murder trial and the way the defense is waging it is a flashpoint, a button which brings that sensitivity to the racist underpinning of our society out in each of us. I feel it. I don't want to even hear the news. I see others feel it reading the threads on Facebook, the defensive postures of some. The flash of impatience of others. As a teacher I spent most of my adult life with young people, middle schoolers, a time when one really begins to be interested in who they are, where they fit, do they fit and a time where fairness is a big deal. I have to say, even now, retired over ten years, I think the most beautiful people in the world are young people, beginning their journey, second only to the adults they have become.
I disown the national perception of racializing. I reject that it is human nature. I believe it is brainwashing and manipulation, an opiate to some and for others, a loose noose, a cocked pointed gun. Russian roulette if you're lucky. I believe that the human being is good, strong and intelligent and has a great capacity to give, tend and risk with great courage: I have examples: even after being born into slavery for generations and never experiencing it, African Americans still loved freedom, yearned for it and were the first to stand and give their lives to freedom and still do. To be able to muster up Hope and Commitment deplete of any in their surroundings is unimaginable courage and love. Being Human must be about courage and love. Then there were the Garretts who lost everything they owned at the age of 60, Quakers, part of the Underground Railroad. Losing all of ones material possessions was the punishment levied. And Thomas Garrett, being sentenced, said he would do it again until this evilness is done. The Garretts are just one of many people on the underground who chose spiritual and what was right over material and physical comfort. Anyone who is 60 knows how long it takes to own a home, how important it is to secure an elderly life. I have to believe that it is Being Human to choose right over evil, and the spirit over material safety. So, yes, I choose not to see us as divided and I do not credit racial consciousness as human nature. That is not to say, that the United States, in reality, is not based on racializing, because it certainly is but that's a choice made by unquestioning it at its foundation. We are traumatized by it by a long history, we are traumatized by our social upbringing in school systems, dealing with other systems in order to have shelter, food, health, education and pursuit of happiness, daily. And these flashpoints, like the murder case of Trayvon Martin, and the racist defense tactic touches a nerve and brings it up for painful discussion, each of us experiencing it as a great division.
We can reject that system which relies on that division and the glorious beauty of all our differences as human beings will be evident -- like my classrooms in Snoqualmie Middle, Cherry Valley Elementary, Monroe Middle, Madison Middle, Jefferson Middle, Roosevelt Middle and Sheldon High School, and the UO College of Education became for me.
Most of my students, if we are looking at the racialized paradigm are, in racialized language, white. Being young, and intelligent, and open they went through some exercises which made sense to them, and then bloomed in front of my eyes.
In Madison, Troy Shawn and Eddy came up to me handing me these green tickets saying, "here's our pass."
"We're doing a simulation about South Africa in Mandelblatt's room and we have to show you our pass because we're Black South Africans,"
It just popped out of my mouth, "You don't need those. You're in Angola now."
The gleam in their eyes and the grin on their faces can only be described as wicked! We looked at each other. I made a bargain. "Not in my class this period. I get to teach this class, but my prep?"
A revolution was born. Out of my portable every morning five young students began to wage a Free South Africa Movement. Every day I would call Mandelblatt and assured him they were working hard on South Africa, researching what to do in the case of dismanteling Apartheid with their own twist. They convinced the students and the whole faculty to begin to divest and boycott. They had a freedom song. They wrote a constitution for a free South Africa. Admittedly, I happened to have a poster in my classroom of a constitution which I intended to hang until South Africa was free. It was torn and raggedy but it still hung there. They even called the tv news. Oh, no! But they did, and they sang their freedom song for the newssteam.
The librarian took her equipment out of Mndelblatt's room. The office wouldn't talk to him. I did not know this until I checked in that night and he responded with, "I really don't want to talk today, Misa. I've got a headache. It's getting out of hand."
"Hey Mandelblatt," I joked, "Do you think Peter Botha has a headache too? I thought it was just the tv camera person interviewing him.
He listed all the things that happened to him that day, dictionaries taken out, the media equipment, can't even get someone to type his stuff and mimeo it. (Yes, this was all pre-xerox and computers.)
He told me to send the revolutionaries back. The simulation over. He needed his film projector back.
I asked how we can make this a win-win for the boys. He argued, the reality is that South Africa is not free. The reality is what the simulation teaches. I argued, asking "what is it we want the boys to learn" and that we could not teach that South Africa would never be free. But we agreed on one thing. This was his class. And for the purpose of this class he was trying to teach how bad it was in South Africa under Apartheid. He was not trying to teach a hope but the reality. That is another simulation. I honored him for allowing the boys to wage their rebellion within the simulation and he agreed he did feel a lot of pride for them but also felt hurt.
It was his class after all. It broke my heart to give them the bad news. I met the kids and explained Mandelblatt's position and in real school reality they had succeeded to shut his classes down. He was proud of them but with the grades, he felt he had to be fair to those who played within the simulation rules. I told them that he will be consequenting them and told them to understand that heroism against a system as huge and evil and global as apartheid, sometimes heroes are punished, martyred, like Nelson Mandela, in prison but yet free and very much part of the anti-apartheid movement as a leader. Whatever grade they were given, they should see it as being one with Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko. They understood, and sobered, they went to class. The South Africa simulation was over. They received a "C" for the simulation and an "A" for revolution in their heart. In the long run, David and I celebrate that the future really is in the Troys and the Eddys -- in their hands. Apartheid ended in 1991, less than a decade later and Nelson Mandela was elected President in 1994.
About that time, I was teaching in Jefferson Institute of Multicultural and International Education, eighth grade. That is the setting of my next example. I wanted to make the writing of the Constitution more interesting than the deadly lesson it becomes with a textbook. I decided to do a simulation with this, dividing all the students into colonial delegates representing their colony during the writing of the Constitution. They all memorized the preamble of the Declaration of Independance including 'That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends,
it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute
new Government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing
its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect
their Safety and Happiness" to set the tone. They all researched their speeches. They all researched their special interest which would inform which speech they would be giving -- or so I thought.
On the day of speeches, Sari Gomez, who was giving a speech against slavery stood up. I don't remember the words right now but it was all about her real heart and her belief. Her voice was confident and passionate. The rest of the delegates spurred her on. And when it came time for the vote, I had my Mandelblatt moment. Unanimously obliterating the institution of slavery every one of them from Rhode Island to Georgia stood up and proudly announced, We the delegates from _____ Colony cast all votes to end slavery in our new country!" Although one part of me thought What was I going to do? the other part was moved to tears. The thundering applause from my 32 students, mostly white, made it clear that they were very aware of the triumph they made out of the simulation. Hannah Ames had a big smile, having made the motion to demolish slavery, standing, and waving her arms about in a victory wave for sure. (She went on to integrate the wrestling team for the school district, first girl wrestler).
I was choked up.
I took the podium and told them "today, you did something incredible. You took history,( I pointed at the textbook,) and you molded it into your own hands. You are different than that first Continental Congress." And I gave them the statistics of the makeup, all male, all European, many lawyers. "Together, women and men, many backgrounds and upbringing, all of you served your country well and with honor today. Because of your choice, your country and your descendants will not have to go through a Civil War which would break your nation apart. You have prevented Jim Crow Segregation and the brutality and inequality of it. There does not have to be a Great Civil Rights Movement because by now, the country would live up to the ideals of freedom for all you brought here with your vote. Because of you there will not be racism and our school would be a regular school instead of special because of our Racism Free Zone. We have a lot to celebrate today because of what you accomplished."
This being said, I hope that these moments they gifted me with -- just a tip of the iceberg of many many moments when each student molded my classroom with their own hands, bringing their families in, their stories, their dreams, stood up for someone whether it was at the State House for school funding, in front of the city council to save their rec center, or make sure someone was safe on the bus who had been tormented day after day. They made of my drama class a Gay Straight Alliance center, something one of my students let me in on years after I was retired and had said with regret, we should have and we didn't even think of it even with all the culture clubs, and was assured there always was a GSA in school and they called int Drama. All this and more were transforming and healing not just the classroom but sometimes the whole community. We mourned Cesar Chavez death, memorialized King each with a re-dedication to justice, welcomed home the Viet Nam vet (these were student inspired and led events) and quietly sat in the little theater where one of the vets took that time to wheel his chair back and forth on the stage, and put to rest what has haunted him his whole life, his buddy's death while 100 middle schoolers witnessed in silent respect. We took 30 students and parents on the road each year, each year guests of a tribe. It was the students' idea, at each place, to give back to our hosts. It was planned, like taking the Shakespeare production there and act it for the little children, or an impromptu gesture when they saw anti-Indian graffiti in the bathrooms, immediately painting of the rec center so that the little kids wouldn't see it. I learned as much as I taught. I received as much as I gave. More, I think. My students come from all hues of the beautiful human rainbow -- none of them colored white, flesh, or black. Their eyes flash if there is something unfair which needs to be dealt with. Their grins widen when they can do something awesome as one. Their coloring flashes or glows when they make their mark, count their coup, turn things so upside down, right side up. That's what color they are. Can you visualize it?
I believe it is from 35 and still going years I have spent in the company of youth White, Black Brown, Red and Yellow that I have hope, and that I have love in my heart, and I believe it is because of the younger generation (some now in their 40's now) that I always will drop the "prejudice bruise" the pain I carry from the national trauma of racism to grasp a beautiful, precious relationship, a glimpse of a future in another generation's hands or the past made right by them. A lot of them became teachers, I mean A LOT, so the future is definitely in good hands. And for those who didn't, many of them my Facebook friends, they are still educating, and touching the next generation reaching way out to all the directions and far into the future.
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