Sunday, March 31, 2013

Peter's Spiritual Journey, Part V: Watching My Students Drown

(3rd of 3 Ruminations on Class Issues)

The Spiritual Journey so far:
Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones

Where I first consciously bumped up against class issues was in one of my first teaching jobs, when I was in special education.  One class I taught was 20th Century History, to a group of five high school students with issues ranging from severe dyslexia to mild or moderate retardation.  Three of them were overtly racist, and it was clear from day one that a lot of high-falutin’ liberal political theory was not going to talk them out of that.  Like any good public school teacher, I challenged racist language whenever they used it.  But how much actually got through?  I remember trying to explain to a kid that being proud of his Italian-American heritage was great, but saying “Whites rule!” was not acceptable.  Waaayyyyy to subtle a distinction for him.  I think the closest I came to actually getting through to one of them was once when a kid said “I hate black people,” and I told him that if I’d been his foreman on a construction site, I’d probably fire him for that, because there your job is to get the house built and you’ve got to be able to get along with your coworkers to get the job done.

As I got to know these kids (the first and only time I’ve ever tried to make a real connection with white supremacists) I learned that one of them had family who were active in the KKK, and that as a young child, he’d witnessed at least one racially motivated murder committed by a relative.

At their urging, I rented and watched “American History X,” and found myself realizing that like the way that the history of gays and lesbians is largely invisible, so is the history of white supremacists.  They’re always the bad guys in movies, portrayed as faceless, white-hooded monsters with no humanity.  My kids loved “American History X” because, although the film carries an anti-racist message and makes no excuses for violence, it does show white racists—people like them—as actual characters with meaningful conflicts and realistic motivations.

As I got to know my sped kids as individuals, I also got to know the special education system and began to see the ways that it was profoundly letting them down.  One in particular stays with me.  Billy (not his real name) was a kid of normal or close-to-normal intelligence, but with profound dyslexia.  His dream in life was to become an HVAC technician like his godfather.  The local voc-tech school wouldn’t take him because of his reading issues, so we were doing the best we could to give him shop classes and work-study along with reading instruction at the regular high school.

What Billy needed was an internship, or an apprenticeship—some kind of program where the core of it was on-the-job training under a master electrician, but with reading and a little bit of history and science and math tucked in around the edges.  We gave him work-study credit to shadow the school custodian doing maintenance, and he loved it.  We arranged an internship at a local auto mechanic, which he didn’t like as much because instead of showing him how to do oil changes, they had him cleaning dog poop from the lot.  I went and toured the vocational school and came away agreeing that, yes, he’d flounder there.  I visited one of the commercial tech schools that kids go to after graduating, got them to donate a copy of their training manual, and gave it to him.  He carried it around like a talisman for a while, but when I asked the reading specialist about it, she shook her head sadly and said he really couldn’t read it at all.

And the answer from administrators and education experts was always the same:  Everybody needs college skills.  Even being an auto mechanic these days means using a computer and reading technical material, so every program of study is going to be run as if it were college prep.  Even the vocational schools are striving for “academic rigor.”  So the only answer for Billy was to buckle down and study his math and history and English, and put his dreams of working with his hands on hold until he proved himself academically.

Another of my sped kids, Larry (again, not his real name) came back to say hi the year after he graduated.  He was in automotive school now, learning about alternators and generators and trying to figure out Ohm’s law.  I’d had this kid in a physical science class a couple of years earlier, and we’d covered electricity, and nobody wanted to learn about Ohm’s law then.  If I’d had half an hour now, I could have pulled him aside and gotten him up to speed, but the clock was ticking, the bell was ringing, and I was off to try to teach another freshman class that hadn’t yet figured out why they should care.

And the only answer we had for why they should care was that everybody needs college skills, even for menial jobs, so we should all pretend we’re college-bound.  As an individual teacher, I felt as powerless to change the tide of education reform as a cork bobbing along in a riptide, swept out to sea and watching my kids drown.

The gift I had for these kids was crap, and they knew it.  I knew what they wanted and needed, and I didn’t have it to give.  So I left.  I have a different job now at a different school, teaching a subject I can actually get kids excited about.

And it occurs to me sometimes that by teaching Advanced Placement science to bright, motivated kids in a relatively well-to-do community, I have abandoned that vision of saving the world that was so central to me in my days in the Farm Co-op.  But it’s what I can do, and it’s not unimportant.  It’s being effective in my own small piece of the world, which is what adults do, rather than saving the whole world in one grand gesture, which is what adolescents dream of doing.

Photos:  Teaching history to white supremacists, 2002
Anonymous message left on my whiteboard by an alumna, 2011

Monday, March 25, 2013

Peter's Spiritual Journey, Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender

(2nd of 3 Ruminations on Class Issues)

The Spiritual Journey so far:
Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones

I left Yale for three reasons:  I seemed to be the only biology major in the entire school who wanted to be a biologist rather than a doctor.  (“Failure” at Yale: not getting into any medical schools.)  The neighborhoods of New Haven surrounding the school really were dangerous to walk through, with several muggings and rapes of students every semester.  But the thing that really drove me away was how the dynamic of rich white Yalies ensconced within Gothic battlements with moats and iron gates amidst a sea of urban blight, violence, and poverty was a recipe for explosive racial tensions, both town/gown and within the student body.  Everyone knew that the problems all came from economic disparity caused by a racist society (which was true) and everyone’s advice to me was the same: Respond to the imminent danger of physical violence not with fear but with political awareness…and in the mean time, keep your head down, don’t wander far from campus, and learn basic street smarts.  Oh, and don’t forget to apply to medical schools. 

I just couldn’t do it.

I transferred to Oberlin, where I felt physically safe for the first time in years and where I discovered hippies.  Oberlin was a funny mix of classes—Marxist rich kids desperately trying to emulate the poor were rooming with working class kids who were the first in their family to go to college and who were desperately trying to emulate the rich.  I felt like I was a little of both.  I couldn’t afford to buy all my clothes new at J.C. Penny, but I was way too sheltered to know where to look to find good, funky used clothing.  So I hung out with the hippies, grew shoulder-length hair, and wore ripped jeans with my old polyester shirts.



The nasty shock to my liberal sensibilities at Yale had been around racism.  At Oberlin, it was around sexism.  The wimmin’s community at Oberlin was very strong and very radical.  Phrases like “testosterone poisoning” and “biology is destiny” were part of the culture.  Mary Daly came to speak, and it seemed like every woman I knew felt like her talk (as well as her books) summed up their own personal life experiences.

Blacks at Oberlin kept largely to themselves.  They almost all lived in Afro House.  They had a very distinctive campus culture.  The Black Student Alliance ran its meetings by Robert’s Rules of Order when every other student organization used an informal consensus process.  Black students wore caps and gowns at graduation, when the white kids had refused to ever since the year of the Kent State shootings.  Oberlin felt like a bubble, and it seemed natural that it would form a lot of little bubbles within it as well.  And if that was what the black students needed to do to empower themselves to succeed in a racist world and a racist economy, then…well, OK.  A little sad that everyone’s so insular, but…whatever.

There was a strong separatist sentiment within the wimmin’s community as well.  They didn’t physically remove themselves to an all-wimmin’s dorm, but they had a culture that was almost as distinct and separate as the black student culture was.  The antisexist men’s movement (embodied in the Oberlin Men’s Center) existed almost as a men’s auxiliary.  My men friends and I all read Mary Daly as well, and while we might quibble with one or two of her more absolutist statements, we got the gist of it and for the most part, we agreed.  We strongly supported the goals of the wimmin’s movement, even as their separatism was very painful to me.  The only part of the men’s movement that had any real direction or identity of its own (in those days long before Robert Bly and Iron John) was where it overlapped with the gay community.  Gay men were great to hang out with.  Unlike the steelworker’s kids I’d grown up with, they were sensitive and emotional and passionate about ideas.  But I wasn’t interested in having sex with them, which made me always a bit of an outsider.  I was a very horny heterosexual male virgin, and really strong feminist women were the people I was most interested in sleeping with.  For a while it seemed like all the straight women were half-asleep, lacking political awareness or a spiritual compass, and I fell head over heels in love with one lesbian after another. 

Ow.  Owwww.

At Yale, when I found that the only role available to me in that setting was to be a privileged white kid surrounded by ghettos, my solution was to leave.  At Oberlin, being male had me in a similar box, only I couldn’t leave.  I couldn’t run away from Oberlin, because Oberlin was already the place I’d run to.  The world was finally beginning to make sense to me in ways it never had before.  I joined an organic gardening co-op, and it really seemed like we could save the world by growing vegetables—like all the insular little subcultures, by dropping out of mainstream society, could ultimately bring about its downfall and replace it with something better.

It bugged the heck out of Cat, when we were first married, that I wouldn’t call myself a feminist.  I had long since bought the line that men can’t be feminists because men just can’t understand what it’s like to be a woman.  We were “profeminist,” and it seemed like the only way to own being a feminist would be to use my deep male voice to shout down the objections of the women who said I couldn’t.  Besides, I’d gone without labels of any kind for so long that I didn’t feel a strong need to defend that one.

Labels:  English in an Italian neighborhood, but completely American in contrast to my English relatives.  Highly educated professor’s kid in high school, but a hick from Youngstown at Yale.  The token Christian in the Oberlin Farm Co-op, the token hippy in the Oberlin Christian Fellowship.  Privileged white oppressor to the black residents of New Haven, “nigger-lover” to the sons of steelworkers I’d grown up with.

Whatever.

Here’s the deepest irony: my desire to be inclusive and to celebrate diversity…that desire is something that I associate with my privileged white liberal upbringing.  The working class kids I grew up with were racist.  They were the ones who called me faggot.  Yet today, the most vocal advocates of class awareness around me are all queer.  It was at elite schools like Yale and Oberlin where I learned to confront and reject society’s racism, sexism, and homophobia. 
Learning about class issues came later, when I went into teaching. 
Photos:  Oberlin Farm Co-op, summer 1980  (I am front row center)
Cartoon, copyright illegible, taken from The Merely Real

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Peter's Spiritual Journey, Part III: Who Am I?

(1st of 3 Ruminations on Class Issues)
The Spiritual Journey so far:
Prologue I: Peter In Kenya
Prologue II: A Liberal Christian With Balls
Part I: A Refugee Looks Back
Part II: Leaving Home
Part III: Who Am I?
Part IV: Learning About Race and Gender
Part V: Watching My Students Drown
Part VI: Animal Bones

I started writing my spiritual journey a couple of years ago, right after coming back from a visit to Kenya.  I was trying to go more or less chronologically, and I got bogged down trying to write about an event in my 20’s—transferring schools from Yale to Oberlin—that was full of pain and passion at the time but now, looking back on it, feels like musty old history.

I’m picking it up again because there are conversations beginning at my Quaker meeting about issues of race and class and inclusivity in our meeting.  The next three pieces of this journey come from things I wrote as part of that dialogue, starting with just trying to get my bearings on where I fit in the whole scheme of class and privilege.  It’s kind of complicated.


I was born into a working class Italian neighborhood in East Haven, Connecticut.  My friends were the sons of construction workers and auto mechanics, but I was the son of a Yale graduate student.  My mother and grandmother (who also lived with us) were English, and I have a very English temperament in some ways—reserved, quiet, and thoughtful—which also put something of a gulf between us and the gregarious and outgoing Italian Americans all around us.  When I was ten, my dad got his Ph.D. and we moved to Youngstown, Ohio, into a very similar situation where he taught college and my friends were almost all the sons of steelworkers.

The class system in Britain is much more overt (and perhaps more rigid) than in America, yet I have never pinned down exactly what my mother’s family’s social class was over there.  There was an uncle I never met who’d been knighted for something he did as a banker during the war, but I think for the most part my family were the sort of middle class who worked as clerks.  Not the aristocracy, by any means, but high enough in status to worry about associating with “the right sort of people” and to look down on tradesmen and servants.  My mother and grandmother came to America as war refugees…of a sort.  My grandfather had been an engineer, and the family legend was that he invented radar.  That’s not quite true—I Googled it once, and the inventor of radar was someone else—but he was doing something with the development of radar during World War II important enough that he and his family were shipped across the pond to be less in harm’s way. 

My grandfather on my father’s side was also an engineer, but more of the hands-on kind.  He worked as a designer and supervisor in big construction projects like bridges and tunnels, and he was down there in the tunnels with the “sand hogs.”  He was also the one who had stories to share of life during the depression, and the kind of very demanding, grueling, and low-paid work that you had to take back then if you wanted to feed your family.  My grandparents on that side were also Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is about as plebian a religion as you can find anywhere.

My dad tells a story of two people he knew when he was younger, both of whom were very dissatisfied with their lives.  One was a teacher who once said he always felt like he was a failure for not having gone into research.  My dad was amazed to hear him say this because he revered teachers and in his eyes, this man had one of the most glamorous jobs imaginable.  The other was a house painter working at the same school who admitted to feeling inferior around all the teachers and academics, and again, my dad was kind of amazed at this.  Any honest work is admirable, and a job well done is something to be proud of, whatever the job. 

The only other overt lesson I got from my parents about acceptable jobs and careers was in my freshman year at Yale.  I was looking around me at all the monomaniacal pre-meds, and I made a comment in a letter home, something along the lines of, if I hadn’t been saddled with this ridiculously high I.Q., I’d just go be a mailman and be happy as a duck.  And my mom’s response was, if I ever decided that that would make me happy, then by all means, go for it.  In their first years in America, my grandmother’s best friends were Bob and Genevieve, and Bob was a mailman.  He’d picked the job because he liked walking and he liked interacting with people.  He had one of the most cheerful temperaments of anyone I’ve met, and my sense while growing up was that that was partly tied in with his having found work that suited him.

My dad got a Ph.D. from Yale, not because he came from a line of wealthy, Ivy League-connected aristocrats, but because he had a strong drive, both coming from within and inculcated by his family, to improve himself.  That push for self-improvement has always seemed to me to be part of his working class heritage.  My own solid middle class privilege a generation later showed not in the fact that I also went to Yale, but in the fact that, when I found I hated downtown New Haven and felt out of place at Yale, I felt I had the freedom to walk away from it.  When I transferred to Oberlin in the middle of my junior year, giving up an Ivy League degree, the only one in my family to give me serious grief over it was my sand hog Jehovah’s Witness grandfather.

Yale is where I figured out that I was really in the lower half of the middle class.  My wardrobe was polyester, my high school had been public, and my dad was junior faculty at a crappy state university.  None of this bothered me—my self esteem was all built around being really smart and finding things I was good at doing, and also around being a good liberal Christian—but it kept me from identifying strongly with the Ivy League mystique, and it made it easier for me to leave. 

Photo:  My dad and me, 1959.  (I am five months old.)
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