1. An Entrance
When I graduated from college, I found myself with the full gamut of adult responsibility hefted onto my shoulders in an instant: my parents would not be paying my way going forward. With the clarity of mind that comes from having no savings, a degree in Creative Writing, and an impending adult life to support, I joined Teach For America.
Featured among the writer Teju Cole’s tweets that went viral in the wake of the Kony 2012 video was the following:
5- The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.
— Teju Cole (@tejucole) March 8, 2012
Am I culpable? Of course I’m culpable. I am a white college graduate of white college graduates. I write this from the comfort of my attractive Crate & Barrel bookshelf desk, with the mid-day light streaming calmly through the windows of my cozy apartment, on a tree-lined street, in a near suburb of an urban center, where the neighborhood is stable and the schools are solid, but I don’t work at them.
Before this was my life—this desk and writing, window-light life—I made another life. I completed my two years of teaching in the South Bronx through Teach For America. I woke up every day in the room I rented in my friend Carl’s family’s brownstone in Chelsea in lower Manhattan, walked across all the avenues to the 6 train, and dozed my way to the Bronx. I taught what was called a “self-contained classroom” of 6th graders on Individualized Education Plans, which meant I instructed the same group of twelve 11- to 13-year-olds in the same room for six hours a day, in every subject except Science and Art.
* * *
Even in 2005, joining Teach For America was a contested act. Was the doing worth the hype? Did Teach For America corps members achieve meaningful results? Who benefited most from the arrangement? Children in urban and rural schools? High-achieving college graduates?
At the time, Teach For America’s mission was to close the “achievement gap” between children in low-income communities and children in privileged communities by placing high-achieving recent college graduates at the helms of classrooms in the nation’s most struggling schools. Nearly a decade later, its mission language has changed, as the victim-blaming connotations of the words achievement gap have come into focus. What achievements? Whose gap?
When I joined Teach For America, I was not as naïve about race and class and the White Industrial Complex as you might assume. I grew up in a mixed-race family. The birth child of a marine in basic training and a just-barely-not-teenaged mother, I was eventually raised primarily by my mother and South Asian stepfather.
I was also a recent graduate of Oberlin College. I was the recipient of a quality education that had centered around social justice, liberal activism, and relentless intellectual curiosity. I convinced myself that what I couldn’t learn completely in five weeks of intense summer training before Teach For America placed me as the lead teacher of a classroom of children who needed nothing more than productive academic experiences—well, some of them were in need of some things more—I would work toward every day until I became what I was purported to be, what I had no option but to become: an excellent educator.
Okay, maybe I was exactly as naïve about race and class and the White Industrial Complex as you might assume.
* * *
At the time that I graduated from Oberlin, Oberlin’s graduation procession marched straight through the arch that serves as an entrance to the college campus. In reproduction on the covers of college admissions’ materials, Oberlin’s emblematic arch—a stately grayish white, a marvel of compression and action in stillness—is glossy and seductive. Graduation is an exit. An exit and an entrance. When I graduated, the most pressing question on almost every Oberlin graduate’s mind was whether or not to process through the storied arch. The arch that was foremost, once you became a campus insider and not a mere admissions’ materials consumer, a contested site. (I write this and then my wife, also an Oberlin graduate, says, “I was not consumed by the question of whether or not to walk through the arch at graduation.”)
Oberlin’s arch. A curved structure that spans a distance, flanked by rows of columns, wingspan set in firm downtrodden embrace with the ground. An arch erected to memorialize 18 Oberlinians who served as missionaries in the Shansi Province of China during the Boxer Rebellion, and were killed. A fragment of the Parthenon, shard of the Coliseum, erected in Oberlin, Ohio, farm country, at the turn of the 20th century.
A form that’s there and then it isn’t. Passable in an instant.
The question loomed: to walk through a structure built to memorialize 18 Oberlinians who served as missionaries in the Shansi Province of China—who were colonizers, who were killed—or around it? Which action demonstrated the right solidarity, and with whom? Oberlin’s graduation ceremony was subsequently permanently moved to a new venue, bypassing the arch entirely—a decisive sidestepping of all those public vexed exits.
Alphabetically, in line between me, and my good friend Carl, was a black man in a cap and gown whose name I only learned because, alphabetically, we marched side by side. He followed me around the arch. My friend Carl, behind him, walked through. The college set up a forking path in the graduation lane to honor the choosing. It was a minor disturbance, quietly sanctioned. I marched around the arch, slipped back in line, and graduated.
* * *
Three months after graduating, I was the lead teacher of a classroom of sixth graders in the South Bronx. Things I was not prepared to be told: “I am tired of your face;” “Your breath stinks;” “Get the fuck away from me.” The first time I cried in class, less than a month in, I was attempting to teach a phonics lesson and one of my students blurted out, “Why couldn’t you at least be skinnier?” It was an incident made even more humiliating by my reaction, the very public revelation that this subject was one that could so easily tear me down.
Of course, I learned something else entirely when my weight and size were topics that my students conspicuously did not bring up again for the remainder of the school year. They stuck to fuck and bitch, and it turned out I could handle fuck and bitch just fine. A redirection to the task at hand. My personal baggage stored safely out of sight.
The students in my classroom that first year in the South Bronx were 100% black or Latino and were also, upon entering my classroom, already 3-5 years behind grade level academically. For the first half of the school year, I was the person who did the most learning in that classroom. (The injustice of that statement is almost too painful to type.) The advice my principal gave me was to focus on discipline first and worry about the teaching part later. Intuitively, I didn’t want to accept this rhetoric, but I also did not have enough skills at that point to achieve classroom management through excellent lesson planning.
I was a new face to the community, and my students, of course called the community their home. The majority of my students had come to my classroom from another self-contained classroom at a nearby elementary school. In their previous shared classroom, the lead teacher was notorious for putting his feet up on his desk instead of teaching. This is a literal description, as relayed to me by other teachers who worked at that school. This core group of students who had moved up to my sixth grade classroom together referred to each other exclusively by degrading nicknames. Cripple, One Tooth, Tetas, Salchicha, Lazy Eye. Sperm Lips, a student with some kind of facial discoloration around his mouth, had thankfully chosen to attend 6th grade at a different middle school.
I spent months trying to squash these nicknames, but then, eventually, I gave in to them. I gave in to the quirky kind of community the nicknames established. I didn’t yet have the skills as a teacher to transform this way of making community into something less vexed, less loaded. Students who had not previously been in the same classroom with the core group were eventually granted their own degrading nicknames.
I never used these names aloud, but when I thought of my students outside of school, as I did constantly, the thoughts in my head invariably went something like: One Tooth hasn’t come to school in a while, I wonder if his mom is sick again, or else, How can I better invest Salchicha in her independent reading book? (I don’t think it’s an accident that I made a habit of nicknaming students in every year I worked in urban education that followed.)
The first big boost I got in reaching my students academically was when my principal sent me for a three-day training in a widely acclaimed phonics-based reading program. The tools I gained from this program enabled me to propel my sixth-graders out of the first-to-third-grade reading level bubble they had been trapped in. (A widely disseminated educator truism is that first through third grades are all about learning to read and from fourth grade on it’s all about reading to learn. Vaulting over a third-grade reading level really is everything.) I was enlivened by the program’s effectiveness, and also by the creativity I had no choice but to bring to the otherwise scripted material to make it palatable to 11-13-year-olds.
* * *
My second year of teaching in the South Bronx was nothing like my first year of teaching. My students followed behind me through the hallways in straight lines; the school’s Dean of Students referred to them as my little ducklings.
The students in my second class of sixth graders benefitted immediately from the acclaimed phonics-based reading curriculum and they flourished academically as a result. A student of mine who turned 14 as a sixth-grader dislocated his shoulder one morning playing handball before school and walked gingerly into the classroom a few minutes after the first bell rang, propping up his own arm by the elbow with his good hand—just to tell me that he was sorry he had to miss class that day, and could he please have the homework, he needed to go to the hospital and didn’t want to miss it.
When the state test scores came in at the end of the school year, eight out of my 12 students had progressed from failing marks to needs improvement in math (one jumping all the way up to on-target) and 10 out of my 12 students improved from failing to needs improvement in reading. These results were so out of the ordinary for a South Bronx special education classroom that several principals called my school’s principal to ask him if he’d cooked the books.
Sounds pretty good, right? What you don’t know is that upon completing my second year of teaching in the South Bronx, I validated every critic of Teach For America’s primary fear about the program. I took all of my skills and growing knowledge and successes as an urban educator, all of the resources that had been invested in me as a teacher in the South Bronx, and walked right out of the classroom, away from the city, away from the state, away from the career path. I was accepted into a fully funded MFA program and decided to run as fast as I could toward the opportunity to pursue writing poetry again, for the chance to take some time to focus inward, for a kind of break.
2. An Exit
When I graduated from my master’s program in Creative Writing, however, I found myself in a surprisingly similar position to when I had graduated from Oberlin. An adult with no savings and yet another degree in Creative Writing. The only advantage I had over my previous graduation experience was a background in urban education under my belt, a concrete career with a guaranteed paycheck.
It was more than that though. For the entirety of my two years getting my MFA, I had been unable to shirk off all the “real work,” the meaningful and necessary work, as I saw it then, still calling to me from the realm of urban education. I graduated and found myself suddenly unwilling to be complicit in the statistics of abandonment that nip at the heels of children in low-income communities, dogged by all the do-gooders who swoop in for a bit, at a certain point can’t take it anymore, and leave.
For the right reasons, I told myself, you will continue to do this. Your path will split here, for the right reasons. In every atom of your being you will be as right as you can figure out to be and when you are proven wrong, you will hear yourself wrong, and then you will again right your course. Rain is right. An arch is a shape that withstands the press of time. You will arch yourself into every knot you can find. It will rain and you will be right there, inside of it.
I accepted a position as literacy specialist at a school whose mission is to take in the most disenfranchised students—teen moms, recent immigrants, former high school drop-outs ready to give their educations another chance—and provide them with a college preparatory education. I moved from St. Louis to Boston.
I worked for five years at a school, and eventually became the assistant principal. But I was only an assistant principal for a very short time.
* * *
For years—a decade, almost—I had been so judgmental of other people when they abruptly left the field of urban education. I was judgmental of myself for two years when a decision I made to pursue an advanced degree in Creative Writing put me in that position, and then I unmade that decision. I was unspeakably angry when my good friend who taught at the same school as me through Teach For America chose not to come back to complete the second year of her commitment. I spit expletives when the new Teach For America teacher arrived the next year and quit three weeks in. When the Italian language teacher we hired at my high school in the Greater Boston Area, the founding teacher of the foreign language program we hoped to launch, packed up his things and sent a short e-mail bowing out two days into his teaching career, I punched walls (in a gentle way). I conflated all of these actions of abandonment with violence. A rare situation in which I could not—and would not—extend empathy.
And then, five years later, I found myself doing exactly the same thing, for a second time and final time. I worked and I worked until I had less and could no longer, and then, abruptly, left.
* * *
It is 2015 now. Black bodies are in peril all around us. This is news but it is only a surprise, an unpleasant shock, astounding, sensational and sad, to a particular subset of the population.
I no longer work in urban education. There is an education deficit, there are many education deficits, but the deficit I find most pressing is not the one I first assumed. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland. We have failed them, we have failed them, we have failed them. We cannot get them back.
The work to be done is urgent, immense, undeniable.
I remember, I remember over and over again, K., one of my students during my first year of teaching in the South Bronx, a sixth grader who scrunched his writing down to a font so tiny on the page it would have been easier to say he wrote nothing at all than to stop and devote the effort it took to pay attention.
And once, what K. set down in his nearly invisible font: “The only thing anyone cares about here is your life or your money. And we don’t got any money.”
There is the story you thought you knew and the one that steps out in its place. The wolf unzips himself from grandmother. There are things you experience that throw you out at a far remove from yourself. Your body the last or the first to catch on. Experience as impact. As whiplash.
Once, before I became an assistant principal, when I was still a teacher and the weight of what I was individually responsible for was somewhat less, something happened that I could not explain back into rightness.
I wasn’t there to see the beginning of what happened, but later, I was told.
The doors to the front office were closed and locked. Inside, two of our students, who had recently been dis-enrolled for the quarter because they had exceeded their allotted number of absences, demanded bus passes. They needed bus passes so they could get to work. Two teenage girls, who had been trying to attend our school off and on for years, frantic and obstinate, tearing up the front office, demanding the bus passes that they could not have access to because they were not currently enrolled in the school.
The dean of students was called to the front office. The assistant principal. I walked by, but the door was shut and locked. The girls were asked to leave but they would not leave. They needed the bus passes. The girls were told again that they needed to leave. They were eventually informed that if they did not leave, the police would be called. Finally, they ran. They ran out of the building and down the street. On their way out, one of them pulled the fire alarm.
I held a door open while the student body filtered out into the slanted and pockmarked teacher’s parking lot, as the babies from the daycare were pushed out in wheeled cribs. The students assembled and the staff ushered them further back, further out of the way of whatever harm was coming.
The two girls who had wanted their bus passes came running past the side of the school toward the parking lot. One carted her backpack, the other, a book. Several large police officers came swiftly after them. Black-clad, billy-clubbed, gun-holstered, they caught up to the girls and threw them face first to the ground, their scalps scraping the chain link fence that separated our school from a church.
Faces to the concrete, teeth to the tufts of grass that split the concrete, in the parking lot, as the whole school watched, the student body a wave we staff held back with our calm and our demands and our love. Two teenage girls, wailing and clutching, and embracing the concrete, thrown by grown men, with their guns and their badges, and the terrible click of their cuffs.
Later, I picked up the one girl’s book from where it had been abandoned beside the fence, sprawled open and bent and oddly wet, and returned it to the school library.
* * *
You see? I was in it, and then I left. I worked and I worked and I worked and at a certain point, not even my body could keep going.
One morning in mid-September, a few weeks into my tenure as assistant principal, my wife, a lawyer, texted me from her office in the financial district to make sure everything was okay; there was a shooter on the loose near my school, had I heard?
Public schools nearby were already on lockdown.
I hadn’t heard. I closed my laptop and hurried down four flights of stairs to where our school dean and principal were meeting on the first floor. It was lunchtime. All of our talented and struggling students had just been released into the neighborhood, into the blue sky and falling red, orange, yellow, brown leaves, to pick up pizza or to smoke in the park, or to just take their babies out into the sun.
I happened to run into the dean of students on the stairs that led to the first floor landing. She was picking at a snack from a plastic baggy as she walked. I remember her casual crunching. I pulled her aside, told her, in a hushed voice, that there were reports of a shooter, that other schools were already on lockdown.
She looked at me, strangely neutrally, stalled for a minute, said, “What should we do?”
What could we do?
There was a shooter out on the streets very close to our school, but we didn’t find out in time to keep our students safely inside the building. Our students were all already out, outside, in the open, exposed, mostly gathered together in the grassy park at the center of a nearby block of shops, for lunch.
How could we gather our students, bar our doors, carve out an impenetrable space, do it quickly enough? We decided on a ten-minute window before the school would be put on lockdown, a window cracked open just wide enough for me to accompany our school social worker to the park.
(I made myself a knot, an arch, an instrument, and, eventually, I bent myself too far out of shape to serve any purpose.)
We walked quickly. We jogged. The school social worker turned to me and said, “I am afraid the shooter might be S.” I said, “S?” She said, “Yes, S. He came by a few hours ago. He seemed off. He had to be escorted from the building.”
I repeated this. “S? Our student? S?”
We separated. We approached the park from different angles. A woman walked past me in clean white walking shoes, pulling a small, fluffy white dog by a pink leash. I cannot imagine what I looked like to her, running, in a suit, in broad daylight, toward the park. I didn’t stop as I passed her, but I slowed, I turned. “Go home right now,” I shouted. “Turn on the news. There’s a shooter nearby.”
I made it to the park. All our students were there, in one clump, toward the middle. The social worker faced me, a few yards up from the students, her back to them, looking urgently into her phone. She started waving her hands at me. I stopped running. She whispered, “Just got a text. Police have the situation contained. The lockdown is canceled.”
I rearranged my face. I smiled at the students. I high-fived a few and inquired about pizza toppings, homework, a physics test, and then walked with the social worker at a more reasonable pace back to our shared office.
I was laser-focused on empowering my students with the quality of education that could lead them to a world of choices, choices to live their lives in whatever way they wanted, to become the people they are so immensely capable of becoming, and to avoid, to whatever degree is possible, the senseless burden of the statistics stacked up against them.
I was right and I was wrong. I was laser-focused, and then, suddenly, adrift. I was really good at what I did, and, ultimately, much less capable in the long run than I wanted or hoped to be. I had the privilege to break, to stop, to choose no path, to say—enough, no more.
* * *
One Sunday afternoon, toward the end of the school year just before I became assistant principal, I sat down in bed and struck my head. A tiny surface area was struck when my head swung back, full speed, into the edge of the headboard. At first I thought everything was fine, and continued to think so, even as the world loomed spectral and strange, my stomach undulating. Then, for a week, I stayed in bed with the shades pulled down against the blindingly chartreuse spring greens that struck lightning bolts, electric happenings in the blue net.
I returned to work. The school year ended. I entered the thick summer air of the un-airconditioned school building as assistant principal, drawing charts and diagrams of the year to come on my laptop, planning trainings, sitting through endless sweaty meetings, waving my hands around and slicing up all that heavy air.
At the very end of summer, one of our students was killed when he made it to work one afternoon only to walk in on a robbery. We held an impromptu memorial service for him two days before the new school year started, on the school’s front steps, in a smoggy sunset of melting orange, a sunset that disappeared slowly into a black stain above our heads as we remembered J. Our J., who’d died.
A man who lived in the neighborhood leered drunkenly around the edges of our memorial service, stumbling into us as we remembered J. OJ., who’d been brilliant and pompous and friendly and odd. I guided the discussion, guided our remembrance of J., made space for what was funny about him and what was hard, and what we couldn’t fix now, in him or in ourselves.
And somehow, simultaneously, I found it in myself to turn to the stumbling, leering, drunken man, to the force of what he smelled like, with my battery-powered candle stub flickering in orderly electric pulses, and say: this is a private gathering, please leave. And he did. He did.
The new school year started. Weeks passed. In classrooms throughout the building, students studied Algebra, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Ralph Ellison, Chemistry.
At some point, not so far into the school year, while we were having meetings and crunching on snacks and our students were out in the park for lunch, another one of our students, S., became a shooter on the street.
First, S. came by our school, which was actually his old school then, speaking only in sentences we could not decipher. He was escorted out of the building by an adult he knew and trusted. He was accompanied partway down the street and pointed toward his home. A short time later—minutes, under an hour—he was a nameless shooter on the street, who’d shot a car that was parked and unoccupied, and then he was a shooter who had been out on the street but then barricaded himself inside his mother’s house, and later still, a shooter who was escorted from his home by members of a SWAT team. Schools nearby went into lockdown, but our school did not quite respond quickly enough to get there.
We didn’t know it was S. and then we were worried it was S. and then it was S. Our S.
In the pictures and videos that made their way to the news afterward, S. appeared neither angry nor filled with malicious intent. His eyelids fell halfway down his eyes, slivering them, like he was almost not looking out at the world at all.
His clothes did not make sense. They cut his body up oddly into thirds. Army pants slung lower than even the fashion would have it; bright, shiny blue boxers pulled up slightly higher than his belly button; a red striped polo shirt tucked into the boxers.
S., who attended our school for two and a half years. Who was in my classroom, back when I still had a classroom. I took him into my remedial reading class when I had just started at the school, as the literacy specialist, and he made so much progress so quickly that he was out of my class before I was really ready to stop having him as a student. I had a nickname for him, related to his quick progress and strong turnaround, and whenever I walked by him in the hallways, I’d shout it out, and he’d flash a huge grin.
That S. S., who was also struggling with the development of a serious mental illness. He made progress with us, but then his mental illness recurred, and he and his mother worked closely with our school social worker to develop a treatment plan that eventually involved a placement at a different school where he could receive more holistic services. We were sad for S. to go, but also excited and hopeful for the all the possibilities we saw swarming into the overflowing basket of his future.
In the pictures and the videos of S. that made it onto the news a year or so after S. left our school for a therapeutic placement, he is escorted from his house in handcuffs, flanked by two members of a SWAT team in full riot gear. A long and glinting gun bumps against the leg of each SWAT team member who escorts S. from his home. Other members of the SWAT team face them from the edge of the lawn. They huddle together behind man-sized shields, guns drawn, guns pointed at S.
At S., in clothes that make no sense, S., who has slivered his eyes and is barely looking out.
Reporters attempt to force the situation into some kind of logical narrative but use language that betrays their own confusion. “There’s really no explaining this,” one says, “An 18-year-old got upset over a parking dispute and shot up the car that parked in front of his mother’s apartment.” S. is described variously as “well-known” to the local police department and as a teen with a “very checkered past.”
In the video, a crowd gathers to watch as S. is escorted into a “wagon” that resembles a tank. As the SWAT team ushers S. into the vehicle, the news outlets report that the crowd “explodes into applause.”
It is unbearable to watch the story of S. become so maligned in its telling to the wider world, to watch his most vulnerable and desperate self become a bullet point in the overwhelming, malignant false story of blackness in America. To watch him subsumed, his humanity disallowed.
* * *
Recently, I visited with a former professor from Oberlin I am still close with and he mused, “I am amazed you persisted in the field of urban education for as long as you did. I really thought you were too sensitive for that work.”
In the end, perhaps, his assessment of me was correct, and I am also not sure that this quality in me was a failure or a fault. It probably was and wasn’t.
In November of the year I became assistant principal, I sat down on my bed and, impossibly, struck my head again. I was not better after a week passed. The rain on the roof was so loud I cried out at it. I tried to return to school but couldn’t see clearly to drive and immediately turned around and went home. My neurologist said concussions followed their own paths, were often inscrutable. She said I should return to work when I was ready, for short periods of time, and leave if things got too stressful or I felt strained. She said, first and foremost, that my brain needed to rest.
On the last day I tried to go to work, I walked right back out into the parking lot, past my car, before the students ever arrived, and all the way down the street and up a hill to a nearby emergency room. I went on medical leave, and as my concussion symptoms extended into months, and my school struggled to go forward without me and with no clear information about when I would be better, I went ahead and did the thing I could find in myself no excuse or forgiveness or alternative for—I quit.
I was shaken up, and then concussed, and then shaken up and concussed again. In the end I was unable to right myself, and so I left, and in many ways, my leaving was remarkably easy, a short walk out of the parking lot, a car-ride to my snug apartment on a secure and sunny, tree-lined street, where the schools are just fine and I don’t work at them.
* * *
It’s over a year later now, and I have only been fully recovered from the concussion symptoms for a few months. Concussions follow their own paths. It was spring, then summer, and the pink blossoms on the trees outside my window have been so bright I can’t believe it. My brain needed to rest. I can’t stop looking. Black bodies are still in peril all around me. I have left the work I meant to make my life’s work and I can’t stop learning this. What’s outside; what’s in with me. What’s bursting open and miles away.
Looking in both directions, across a bridge, a river, seven short miles spanning the distance between.
Photos of the Park Avenue Railroad Bridge by Timothy Vogel
Photo: The Memorial Arch, Oberlin College (Hu Xi)