24 November 2008

Teaching Black Girls To Talk

I teach a piano class four afternoons a week at a KIPP school.

The girls were horrible Thursday. No one had done their homework, three of the five showed up without notebook, music or pencil, and they were talking as much and as loud as me for most of the hour. Finally I threw in the towel. "OK. You don't want to listen to me or work today so talk to me."

They gave me two things I could use. First, T_____ said she can't learn when she's hot. The girl has a point. In the cinderblock cell where we meet, room temperature is either sweltering or frigid; there's no middle range. When the AC is on, arctic air blasts directly onto us from a 3 foot by 3 foot vent in the wall. When it's off, my blouse sticks to me.

R______ said "Miss Alex, I think we'd all do better if we had a morning class. Our mind is too tired by this time of day." Another very good point. Inspirational messages like "No Excuses" and "Find A Way" are emblazoned all over the walls of this school. Granted I haven't spent a lot of time with adolescents, but these kids seem to be making excuses all the time. Is that typical of the age group or are they just rebelling against the signs?

I stopped in the office to pick up my check on my way out. After making my way through balloons and crepe paper and tables burdened with chicken wings and cake--preparations for Parent's Night--the tension in the office was an abrupt change. The office ladies were tiptoeing around the edge of the room with averted eyes, leaving a wide circular berth around a white male teacher and a brown girl student.

I entered asking, in a normal volume, if I could borrow a computer to look up the bus schedule.
One of the secretaries gestured toward an empty desk and mouthed "Use that one..." What was going on? Well, Mr. (who is the principal as well as a teacher at this school) was schooling her in how to say "Excuse me. I didn't understand what you said." After each utterance he'd say something like "No, you sound angry" or "Now you sound like you're annoyed" or "That doesn't sound like you really want to understand."

This went on the full four or five minutes it took me to find what I needed and get out of there. It felt hard and abusive and pointless to me. I think I took it personally. And the episode fed whatever it is in my cellar-soul that growls at the sight of all the uniforms and standing in line that defines these new New Orleans schools.

These kids are being trained to fit in the dominant culture. I'm not slamming the dominant culture wholesale; don't misunderstand me.


Since not one adult found a way to inform me of the schedule changes on Monday and then Wednesday last week; and since neither the office staff, the teacher who hired me nor the payroll clerk can figure out how to set a payday and pay me on that day; and since I received neither email nor telephone message--at either of my phone numbers--today informing me that class had been canceled but instead learned about it after traveling through rain to get to school today....

It just seems like maybe drilling the adults and getting them to conform might be more useful than drilling a 12-year-old girl about the tone of her voice at the end of a long school day (they meet 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.).

That job I left in October was one of those places where voice tones are modulated to flat and positive and facial expressions are perennially pleasant. There's a slender band of affect permissible and anything to either side of that is problematic, dysfunctional or unprofessional. Suppress, suppress, suppress....

How and when did flat affect and fake smiles become the desired demeanor? Why is it unprofessional to look or sound amused or annoyed or embarrassed or hurt when one is amused or annoyed or embarrassed or hurt?

It would be a different (and possibly less distasteful) situation if the girls were being taught meditation techniques or boxing or offered tools and opportunity to encourage them to self monitor to achieve a balance that works for them--if not the dominant surrounding culture. They're being told "That way that you walk/talk/laugh/emote is not okay with us. You need to stop doing that and do it this way because we're happier and more comfortable when you do it this way."

I think the girls are bringing them something they don't know how to handle so they're outlawing it.

When I was coming up, adults would say things like "Do as I say. After you've traveled the road I traveled, you'll have the right to an opinion."

But what if I'm not interested in traveling your road? What if I was planning to sail to my destiny? Or fly?

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