I’d like to share a story, one that is still very real and personal for me. This was the first day of the school year and I was teaching a sophomore geometry class at a public high school in New York City. I started class with a question, “What gets in the way of you learning math?”
I liked to ask this question at the beginning of each school year because my students gave me incredibly valuable answers. They would tell me about everything from math anxiety, to not doing homework, to not asking questions, to falling behind and cheating, a whole litany of obstacles that we were gonna face as a class unless something was done. And, their answers were never in vain because I used them to plan mini-lessons that I delivered throughout the year on topics like how to ask a question, how to study, how to build math confidence, etc.
On this day, one of my students, a Mexican American young woman, who I had taught in Algebra the previous year, raised her hand. This was a rare occurrence because I had never known her to voluntarily speak in class or raise her hand.
She said with all seriousness, “I can’t learn because you’re white.”
As soon as she said this the class went silent. It was perhaps the quietest my room had ever been or would be. Thirty-four sets of eyes looked at me, waiting for my response. In that moment, I could feel my skin flush warm and red as it does when I am nervous and caught off guard. My throat went dry. My voice did that quiver that it does when it’s uncertain and I asked, “Why is that?”
She said, “Because white teachers don’t like Mexicans.”
She went on to share a story about how in third grade she had a white teacher who said to her, “Mexicans have too many children and don’t take care of them.” This racist comment broke this little girl’s heart. She said that she went home and told her mother about her teacher’s comment. Her mother decided that each morning they would spend extra time getting ready, so that when she arrived at school, her teacher would see how pretty and well-cared for she was. This would be their way of proving her teacher wrong.
When she finished speaking telling us this story, there were tears in her eyes. I looked around the room and saw recognition in the faces and head nods of several students. The energy in the room had shifted to one of palpable vulnerability and authenticity.
I confess that her words struck a chord in my heart and brought up a memory of my own that I had long suppressed. A day when I was in fifth grade walking to P.E. and my teacher told a group of boys to “rough me up” because it would make me “less of a sissy.” And how almost thirty years later as an adult, as a teacher, as a queer person, I still carry that fear somewhere inside of me.
Though our experiences were different, and I know that racism and homophobia operate differently in society, I found myself feeling connected to her story. This young woman’s experience made me think about the impact of carrying the traumas and aggressions that we experience from prejudice and systemic oppression. I then realized why I may have known her to be so “quiet” in class.
That day, I began a journey to better understand the role of systemic racism, and other forms of oppression, in public education. I accepted that part of living out my commitment to the success and well-being of my students had to involve deepening my understanding of racism and my own part in it as a white person. And, before I could ally myself with the work of dismantling it, I had to first grasp the ways I benefit from racism, the ways I participate in it, and the ways I may signify it, just by the history attached to the color of my skin. That day, that student in her truth and courage, taught me.
Ricky has taught mathematics in high school and middle school, both general education and special education. Has worked in both public schools and alternative settings for at-risk youth. Currently works in elementary schools supporting teachers, administrators, and families in positive behavioral interventions and supports.
Ricky is a guest blogger for CORElaborateWA.