“I better give this broom to a girl. Sweeping is a woman’s job.”
“Do I have to be in a group with him?”
Whether my fourth grade students’ comments were said with a giggle and a nudge or a roll of the eyes, I heard them. I saw them. We all felt them. I guess I could have responded with a “Let’s not be cliquey, boys and girls,” or a teacherly, “Now, now. Let’s be nice.” We could have continued to avoid the awkward, but we chose to confront the parasitic -isms that were draining the life out of our shared space.
I had originally applied to teach at the school, in part, due to the student demographics. We’re a small Title I school of under 200 students. While our student population is primarily Latino, African Americans make up 16%, and we also serve a few white and Native American students. Based on my four years' experience in Texas, I'd say we’re a pretty diverse group. This particular year, my class of fifteen included students who were mixed racially, who had come to us as refugees from Africa, and who were from upper-middle income white families. I had a student who was closely tied to his Native American culture and others who were first-, second-, or third-generation Mexican Americans.
The diversity that I loved brought with it a dynamic for which most students are not equipped with politically correct phrases or stock niceties. At times, the prejudiced words and gestures that thrive outside a school's walls seeped into our learning environment and leaked out of the lips of students. As if such words weren’t degrading enough, our school had been, for the first time in its 70 years, branded with the scarlet letters “AU”: Academically Unacceptable. I begged for a few minutes a day to address the social climate that was infringing upon our learning environment. But, my schedule was not my own. “There is no time to waste,” I was told.