I regret that being able to simplify algebraic expressions fluently does not save my students from being shot.
My hands are covered in green ink, I have four different types of assignments spread across my bed and half-sheets of notes and things that worked and things that didn’t when trying to explain developing equations from a word problem five different ways climbing my legs, and my back is tight with the tension for the students that didn’t find engagement in today’s lesson.
I’m just a substitute teacher.
No, you’re a real teacher. It’s like the last one was a sub – you’re the real thing. Don’t act like you can just sit there and let us play. We know you, Ms. Andrews.
I rub my eyes and sigh, the love for my children weighing more heavily on my heart than I used to think love should, not even half as heavy as I imagine it weighs on the hearts of mothers to non-white children.
I have the unique privilege of being a long-term substitute at my former school, with my former students, in one of my former subjects (seventh grade special education math). I left the position for many reasons, one of those being that I felt the system as a whole did not support our students – not simply because it didn’t know how to, but because it truly did not care to. As far as issues with the school itself – a Title I public middle school, one of the lowest regarded in a suffering urban district – I had grave concerns over the ethics of the way special education was handled (among countless other things). I loved my students dearly, had fallen in love with their community, and I wanted so much to give back to the world, but I was seeing too clearly that the system didn’t want and wouldn’t allow me to do as much as I wanted to, feel that I can, not as a teacher, but as a person. I had to go.
Unfortunately, the next one in didn’t share my enthusiasm and love that got me through the most chaotic classroom moments and she left by Thanksgiving. I can only half blame her – after all, I didn’t stick it out past two years myself, and she wasn’t well-supported. On the bright side, it gave me an opportunity to come check in on my kids.
My students, the school, and its community is predominantly black. Within the student population, less than 1% identify as non-black. When strangers would find out what part of the area I worked in, I would, as a white woman, get an nauseating “oh bless your heart” as though I were some martyr because, as they would continue, “those kids” must need and benefit from me and oh how nice of me to step into that community. It wasn’t very subtle and it was the quickest way to light my fuse and set me on a tangent about how amazing my students were, as well as my colleagues. Black or learning disabled or not, my students are also energetic, beautiful, diverse, musical, artistic, possess literary genius, athletic, hilarious, rhythmic, creative, and honest.
There is one thing that holds true for each and every one of them as individuals though and, after the killing of Trayvon Martin, I started to find it difficult to turn my mind away from: from the time they enter high school through the rest of their lives, they are over twenty times more likely to be shot by the police than their white counterparts.
I correct problem 6 on another page for what feels the hundredth time – simple x’s are not enough, even though I know only two or three students will really analyze the difference in the way the problem was worked out. My stomach growls in hungry dissent at the patience of my hand to work a problem over and over. I think about how when I had received them as sixth graders last year, there were already a handful that had given up on themselves, so used to being wrong, so used to failing, so used to being made to feel inferior against their typically-minded peers, so used to papers massacred and given back to them covered in blood without explanation, like the bodies of too many left on the streets. I think about how one of my African colleagues told me my first year that special education didn’t exist where he was from, that the community was invested in each child’s report card and spent hours tutoring the child until he/she got it.
I consult my note-sheet about one of the methods that broke through to a student in my fourth period class and carefully draw it into the margins. Dinner will wait. Western culture isn’t going to teach this child until he/she gets it.
It isn’t entirely that we don’t care as much about students identified as having a learning disability as much as we specifically don’t care about students who are low-income and non-white. Of course, it’s little coincidence that certain disabilities have a much higher prevalence in these communities and it has next to nothing to do with genetics. I have a theory about special education in America, but that’s another story altogether.
I know I’m not going to save my students with math. I’m not going to save them with hours of correcting papers, demanding they give their attention to my lessons even though I’m a substitute, my “guerrilla” lessons I sneak in on social consciousness, or even through some of the wonderful relationships I’ve developed with some of them. I’m not going to save them because none of these things are enough to change the system that needs change. As one person, I cannot change that system either. The “I can’t”s as it relates to my students weighs heavily against me returning to teach full-time, however convenient this sounds to my administrators. I cannot feel successful in the classroom at the end of the day because I’m not there because I just wanted to teach – I wanted to change the world.
I’m not one of the amazing teachers that can do that with just a classroom. I can’t do that feeling that it doesn’t matter how much I teach them or what I reach them with if the person holding the gun – or the resume with their admittedly “ethnic” name, or the housing application with their income levels included – never pauses to ask about their character, much less their knowledge.
In this moment, all I can do is spare them seeing red another day.