Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Gates of Hell

With six courses to teach (which means 14 times per week in the classroom) plus being the advisor to the Sociology Club plus trying to seal down a permanent position so I can pay my rent for the rest of my life plus helping to plan an 8-day trip to Mexico over spring break AND beginning to learn Spanish plus trying to think about getting things published, I consider it a special day when I get to read a few posts on somebody else's blog. I remember fondly going from blog to blog last summer for hours on end and writing two posts in one day, if I was so inclined.

More recently, I was reaching a point where I wondered what it would take to force me to the mat again. It's not that I don't have topics. I keep a running list of blockbuster ideas I deem worthy and even needful of addressing. And I still have "A European-American Sets Me Straight" to finish...eventually. But I'm rushed in the morning, whipped at night, and running from activity to activity even when I'm home on a Saturday and refuse to get out of my red plaid flannel pajamas. Reading preparation alone for six courses is pushing me into a new pair of glasses.

Then, I checked my emails yesterday and found that I had a new commentator on my latest post.

"Howdy from Oklahoma," he began.

"My wife and I are high school English teachers in urban Oklahoma City high schools. My school is 70% African-American...[and] has all the problems of urban schools. Our students are 90% free/reduced lunch. We have a negative school environment, poor discipline, high absenteeism, high drop out, poor attitude. I've been here 13 years. Recently, I read that black males who drop out of school are twice as likely to be unemployed or in prison than they are to have jobs. So I feel that I can't give in to despair and that I have a holy mission to be here. But I wish I felt more competent. I know how to survive in my school, but I worry that my teaching is ineffective. I'd be glad to get whatever help you can offer me. Thanks, Lynn Green"

And just like that, I'm here. Nodding. Captured like a fly between the window and the screen. Mesmerized by his paragraph like a frog staring at a bonfire, instinctually realizing on some level that no rational person would make even the most well intended attempt to reply to this in public. The fire's too hot and I'm too small. Frogs get their gizzards cooked that way. I've seen it happen. What made him think I'd have pixie dust?

But the thought of Lynn Green standing at the gates of hell, catching bodies and minds and psyches as they fly by, is more than I can resist. Still, where do I begin? He's not really asking me for some kind of tidy answer. He knows better. He's just trying not to buckle under the weight of his holy mission and calling out to someone he thinks will understand.

Oh, Lynn. How do we wind up at the gates of hell anyway? It often feels so difficult--and on some days ridiculous--to keep believing that there's hope. We've been in this phase, after all, for nearly four hundred years. And rather than seeming to move in a healthier direction, it's apparent the blight has spread and is spreading. The forces of evil (if you will) move like a noxious fog over the face of the earth, enveloping more and more people and animals and trees. Much that is beautiful has been torn asunder and left for dead. And still we stand at the gates of hell, prepared to do battle as if we are not mortal, but rather some kind of mythological figure that did not name itself and cannot give up the fight because we never chose it in the first place.

Back in the covered wagon days, when I was going into prisons by court order to speak and counsel and serve, the men used to ask me, "Why are you doing this?" And I would say, "Anybody can do time. I'm just doing what I would hope someone would do for me, if I was locked up." But the fact is, I didn't know the answer. I was just being glib. Not that the answer I gave them wasn't true, but how did I come to know that? WHY did I want to do what I would hope someone would do for me, if the tables were turned?

For everyone of us standing at the gates of hell, there's a hundred thousand or more just schlepping along through life the best they can, thinking about remodeling the bathroom or trading in the car or planting a bigger (or a smaller) garden this year. And what's wrong with that? What's wrong with planting gardens or remodeling bathrooms? They earned it, didn't they? I mean, the poor (and the disenfranchised and the suffering and the wartorn) are always with us, aren't they? How does it get to be someone's holy mission to do something about it when there may be nothing to be done; that is, when there's no easy answer and it might all just get worse?

One thing's for sure: you don't volunteer for these gigs at the gates of hell. Nobody in their right minds by any popularly understood and accepted general standard would volunteer to put their heart on an altar on a daily basis and then set it on fire day after day while we miss many more than we're ever able to catch. We drop in exhaustion at the end of a trying day, only to arise and do it again, as if we had no perception of any other option. And when others say, "I couldn't do what you do," we think "I can't do it either. But I do..."

I look back over the different gates I've stood at--the prisons, the drug facilities, the juvenile lock-ups, the residential programs, the social service offices, the universities--and the faces come back to me like Botticelli paintings. The man who'd been in the hole for five years already in the dark side of a hill, leaning close to the bars and whispering "How do you learn to love again after you've forgotten what it feels like?" The bright-skinned Latino kid who wrote a play about the street and wouldn't discuss being forced to rob people at gunpoint to feed his mother's crack habit. The African-American kid who went back to detention for jumping a cop who was manhandling his friend in the courtyard of the facility--while the staff watched. The endless string of beautiful young women of color who admit with their eyes flat that they accept "dates" to pay the bills and buy their kids school supplies. The elderly African-American woman we found sitting alone in her dark, cold kitchen without food because she was too embarrassed to tell anyone her checks had been stopped and she didn't have anyone to help her. The college athlete forced to attend workouts at five in the morning, so he falls asleep in class, knowing no one really cares if he graduates. The Jamaican boy supporting six younger siblings who I saw stopped on the street by a police officer in broad daylight. I had worked with the boy in the past and just happened to be across the street to witness and then intervene as the officer proceeded to bounce the boy's head back into a brick wall every time he gave the "wrong" answer to a question. And where are they all now?

The schools are full of stories, full of pain. I used to tell "my" boys that learning to read is the most revolutionary act they could commit, but most of them did not imagine themselves to be revolutionaries. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," they would say, a sentence I had first heard in the prisons two decades before.

For a while there at one point, a decade ago, I'd have ten-minute conversations with a boy who literally couldn't say three words without using some kind of sexual term. So--for as long as he could stand it--we would practice having casual conversation. About television. Or the weather. Or some other equally irrelevent topic. The goal, of course, being to talk without the "F-word" appearing even once as a noun or a verb or an adjective. And he eventually managed to get into a slot at a vocational rehab program. But I found him in the adult Department of Corrections data base the other day and had to stop looking up names because, after locating three of "my boys" grown up, but in jail, it was starting to get to me.

I used to give them candy as rewards for reading, nutritional guidelines be damned. Snickers bars were very popular (I wonder if there's a commercial in that somewhere?). And that was before I saw "Dangerous Minds." When I brought mini-chocolate bars to my college classrooom once last semester, I thought of the boy who shut the blinds and locked the door so that no one would know I was teaching him to read. I had found a 70-page book about car engines at the second grade reading level and when he finished it, he announced, "That's the longest book I've ever read!" and then demanded immediately: "Where's my Snickers?"

One year, I asked a roomful of sixteen-year-old minority summer school students why they thought so many kids drop out and they decided that not being able to read is one big reason. They agreed that it's embarrassing to admit by the time you're a teenager that you can't do the work because you can't read the words. So kids "act up" and get thrown out of class to avoid the humiliation of having their "secret" known.

When I suggested telling the teacher in the class, they assured me that when they tried that, they are often brushed off with an unapologetic, "That's not my problem. You should have learned that already."

"It's not your fault if you can't read," I told them, "It's the system's. Everyone of you wants this or you wouldn't be sitting here. The school board is supposed to see to it that you're provided a basic education. And reading's about as basic as you can get. It would have been great if you'd been able to get it before now, but you have a right to this and you need it, if you're going to be able to live a decent life. So if you don't know how to read, walk up to your teacher and say 'I need to read!' And if they won't help you, go to an administrator and say 'I need to read!' Until you find someone that will help you, no matter how many you have to approach." Did they? I don't know.

I remember doing an interview on the phone once for a piece of research I was doing on gang boys. I was on the phone so I wouldn't risk compromising the kid by knowing what he looked like, depending on what he decided to tell me. He was an articulate African-American boy--fifteen-years-old--and seemed both mature beyond his years and quite intelligent. When he told me that he had dropped out of school, I asked him why and he said, "Because all my friends dropped out."

"I didn't ask you about your friends," I countered. "I asked you why you dropped out."

This time, he considered my question for a moment before answering matter-of-factly, "I got tired of being treated like I was stupid." And I thought to myself, "I'll bet you did."

I mentored him just the tiniest bit and he went back to school, graduated, and got a good job at the university, where--as an employee--he could take courses for free, which he did. Then, he got married and bought a mobile home, so I thought he had beaten the odds, but the last I heard, he was back in the streets. I don't know what caused him to fall back, but I can only imagine how difficult it is to be a young African-American man or woman in a racist society.

The bottom line, Lynn, is that standing at the gates of hell is a head butt on a good day. And for every success story, there's gonna be twenty or thirty or more you're going to have to watch get past you. But keep in mind that somewhere up the road, there just might be another person who's successful where you haven't been. And, besides, you don't know what all you're really accomplishing. Have you ever seen a tiny sprig of green climbing up out of a crack in a sidewalk? Your biggest job, in the end, is to plant seeds, seeds that you may never see grow, but that will grow just the same.

Often, when I speak to a group or even a single person, I will think to myself, "Now what do I want to put in this person's mind, if this is my only shot ever?" On one such occasion, a boy in a facility I was working for was about to be arrested for murder. Everybody knew that if he got word of it, he would go over the wall. And he was hard to talk to anyway. But I had to say something. So, I walked up to him in the courtyard, stood there a minute and said simply, "No matter what, change is always an option. You know that, right?" He looked me dead in the eye--something I had not seen him do with anyone yet--and said, nodding, "Yes."

Sometimes, that has to be enough.

12 comments:

Professor Zero said...

CS I'm fascinated by your stories but will have to come back to read again more slowly.

I have the impression this Lynne is already doing anything I'd have to recommend, namely:

- be concerned about what he says he's concerned about (they can tell, and it makes a difference right there)

- be competent in his subject (many
teachers at these schools are out of date or sketchy, I know because I have to teach them in refresher courses, and get their underprepared students as freshmen;
just being up on things, and as an English teacher, just liking language and being comfortable with it in a way that goes beyond grammar rules and so on, is already a lot)

- see if there is grant money or anything to get interesting / engaging materials for classes

- just be cool and real, not one of those high school teachers the students wonder whether they just have an "off" button at night

- don't put up with too much b.s. -
have backbone (but nice backbone)

I can't think of anything else to do except try to maintain sanity and *that*, believe it or not, the students also like: seeing someone with real integrity, in the sense of wholeness.

But I strongly suspect your correspondent is already doing these things.

Professor Zero said...

P.S. I guess the other thing is, know they're still kids in some ways, but talk to them like grownups. Many people in high school have kids, cars, jobs, Iraq deployment dates, etc., and I've noticed some are supporting their parents. So: never condescend, talk straight, it may be one of the few times an older person has talked to them like a real person
and not like an inferior (not condescended), it will have an impact. More than you know.

Professor Zero said...

And now I'm hogging your comment space and also have to go to class but did not want to leave without saying: brilliant post. I'd love to sit around and discuss every sentence, hear you say more.

Anonymous said...

I think this is my favorite post since you first told me about your blog. The things you've done and the people you've reached out to...it all really fascinates me. You know, when I sit in your office and you're trying to answer my questions about life, there's just a million more questions I'd like to ask about you but never do.

You need to publish...sommeeethingg! I know you have a lot of classes and I hope (CROSSES FINGERS) that you get that permenant spot here. But what I'd really like to see is you putting your stuff out there.
And even if you don't publish, I want to read every word you've written.

And you know, I want to write something that makes someone else react the way I do about your writing. I wonder if that's possible.

Your AWESOME student :-D
Katie

Professor Zero said...

OK I'm back hogging space. One of my favorite passages:

"And rather than seeming to move in a healthier direction, it's apparent the blight has spread and is spreading. The forces of evil (if you will) move like a noxious fog over the face of the earth, enveloping more and more people and animals and trees. Much that is beautiful has been torn asunder and left for dead. And still we stand at the gates of hell, prepared to do battle as if we are not mortal, but rather some kind of mythological figure that did not name itself and cannot give up the fight because we never chose it in the first place."

2 key points there: 1) it really is getting worse, and 2) a) mythological figures that did not name themselves, who b) cannot give up the fight because they did not choose it in the first place.

*Brilliant.*

Changeseeker said...

Well, I surely know I have *two* fans. :^) And thanks for the reinforcement.

PZ: Good additions, especially "never condescend, talk straight, it may be one of the few times an older person has talked to them like a real person and not like an inferior..."

It's sometimes hard to strike the balance, remembering that they are really, in many ways, just children, but children who have been robbed of the safety of being a "child," so it's crucial not to talk down to them because they have often walked a difficult path and deserve to be acknowledged with great respect for that and for their on-going struggles. Actually, I tend not to talk down to children, in general, anyway.

Still, as the African-American coach in "Remember the Titans" admonishes the European-American assistant coach who tries to "rescue" an African-American player from being held accountable: "You're not doing Black kids any favors by giving them a free pass. You're crippling them."

I remember one African-American college student who came to me physically, psychologically, and emotionally exhausted with only a couple of weeks left in the semester. He was trying to finish his degree. He was forced to work a heavy schedule to support himself, as well. And he didn't think he could make it. I leaned my face in close to his and lowered my voice to a whisper. "How bad do you want this?" I asked him. I assured him he could do it, as difficult as it was, but that he had to be clear about wanting it THAT bad.

He made it. And walked with SUCH pride.

Katie: When you've been writing as long as I've been writing, you'll be WAY better than me. ;^)

"askwhy" said...

Changeseeker, I keep going back and forth about leaving this comment. Almost left it yesterday, decided not to. Now I'm back.

Okay. Your blog initially came to my attention because you linked to and posted once on my blog. And then, you have mentioned me in a post (my conversations with thefreeslave/maxjulian). So every so often I come over her to read.

CS, just so you know (maybe you already do), you and I are really seriously NOT on the same page. I mean, even beyond this structural location/academia thing I wrote about, we are so far apart.

And this post so clearly illustrates why.

Example: Often, when I speak to a group or even a single person, I will think to myself, "Now what do I want to put in this person's mind, if this is my only shot ever?"

Wow, CS. Just. Wow. I don't even have the words for what I feel it means for a white person to say this at all -- let alone in this post that so clearly includes your interactions with people of color. It seems screamingly obvious to me what's wrong with this kind of statement, so I hope you'll forgive me for my lack of eloquence.

In general, you seem to me to fall very easily (and apparently without noticing?) into in a space of "I am a white savior," on so many levels, CS. That is my perception.

And, it's just -- I'm not sure exactly what it means to be on someone's blogroll. Maybe you do like to read what I write, but if so, you are either missing the point entirely, or you like to read stuff you disagree with. Or, maybe you put my blog on there because it seemed like a good idea at the time and havesince forgotten about it.

And, or but ... to the extent that listing me on your blogroll suggests some sort of affilation of perspective (I really don't know if it is supposed to, one way or another) -- please know that I really seriously don't see such an affiliation between our perspectives. I perceive a deep deep clash in where you're coming from and where I am. I don't know why it is so damn important for me to say this, but ... if it posts, I decided I needed to say it.

"Askwhy"

Lynn Green said...

Hi CS,

I'm sorry it took me a while to come back to your blog. I really appreciate your attention to my post. It's more than I deserve, but it is deeply appreciated. Thank you, prof. zero for your insight. I have attempted to do much of what you have said, but I need to be reminded all the same of my responsibilities to my students. I find it all too easy to focus on "poor little me" and forget that I got into the business for something more than my own comfort.

Prof., you are dead on about the responsibilities these kids have. I recently asked my Advanced Placement class of juniors and senitors how many of them worked after school. More than 3/4s of the class raised their hands. Then I polled them on how much they worked each week. The average worked out to more than 30 hours a week. Some work two jobs!

So when some "ed expert" comes to me and says that all I need to succeed as a teacher is to "maintain high expectations", I wonder if she/he has ever set foot in a real classroom in the past two decades.

I plan to keep in touch. I'm starting a new blog designed for teachers at our high school. It's going to be a sort of "idea swap market". I'll give you the info as to when it's up, so you can see what we're up against and maybe chime in with your experience.

Thanks a bunch for your sincere help. And, be assured, I love being a high school teacher. I just want to do a better job of being one.

Changeseeker said...

Lynn: Just keep doing what you're doing. And keep in mind that you're not saving them. You're saving yourself. You have the rest of your life to do that. Also, I intend to make a brief post in a minute listing some books that you might find interesting.

Askwhy: I saw your comment the other day and just haven't had time to respond until now. You're correct that I haven't read much of what you've written beyond what you put on Maxjulian's blog. But while some of it was too long and theoretical for me to feel able to spend the time needed to really consider, what I did see seemed consistent with my understanding of things having to do with the socially-constructed, political notion of race.

It's apparent from what you say, however, that you haven't read much of what I've written either because if you had, you would know that while I have wound up in academe, I did not receive my perceptions of African-American/European-American relations primarily from academic sources and am far less theoretically positioned there than you are. Further, if you had read more of my work, you couldn't possibly surmise me as perceiving myself as anybody's "White" "savior". I have sought and continue to benefit from African and African-American input, judgment, and correction for more than four decades now and I am absolutely confident that if I had a shred of "savior-complex" anywhere in my psyche, it would long since have been exposed and addressed by those who know better than you. This is not to say that I do not carry the infection of racism like all European-Americans do, but that's hardly the same as imagining myself to be a savior.

I do appreciate your commenting, however, as it has inspired me to celebrate entering my second year of this blog by writing a manifesto of sorts to clarify (once more--because I have surely been most clear on this for over a year now) where I stand.

In the meantime, you should know that I placed your blog link on my roll because I believe you have some important things to say that might benefit some of those who visit me here. If you would like me to remove it, you have only to ask and I won't ask why. ;^)

Professor Zero said...

"The schools are full of stories, full of pain."

This is one of the other sentences I like. Useful to me because my indoctrination is, schools are refuges and/or spaces of the privileged. But in fact: full of pain.

Changeseeker said...

Yes, PZ, even--and maybe especially--at the college level, where everybody is supposed to be carefree, monied, cavalier, oh, yes, and don't forget beautiful (according to the stereotypical Euro-centric, Hollywoodified standards of "beauty"). All while struggling with dysfunctional families, lack of adequate income (and overblown college costs, such as books), anorexia/bulimia/self-mutilation, rape, drug and alcohol abuse, racism, sexism, classism, elitism, religious and ethnic intolerance, stigmas against those abled differently from the norm, etc., etc., etc. Sometimes I wonder how anyone makes it to the finish line.

askwhy said...

It's apparent from what you say, however, that you haven't read much of what I've written either because if you had, you would know that while I have wound up in academe, I did not receive my perceptions of African-American/European-American relations primarily from academic sources and am far less theoretically positioned there than you are. Further, if you had read more of my work, you couldn't possibly surmise me as perceiving myself as anybody's "White" "savior". I have sought and continue to benefit from African and African-American input, judgment, and correction for more than four decades now and I am absolutely confident that if I had a shred of "savior-complex" anywhere in my psyche, it would long since have been exposed and addressed by those who know better than you. This is not to say that I do not carry the infection of racism like all European-Americans do, but that's hardly the same as imagining myself to be a savior.

(many months later): Wow, I had no idea you responded. Bored google searches are interesting

Well, CS, you are so far gone you don't even see it. You see yourself as one of the conscious enlightened white ones. Check yourself. If you dare (do you?) -- check yourself seriously.

I see your bullshit. You are apparently engaged with people who aren't calling you on what you are doing. Rhetorical vague and unspecific references to your internalized racism are a mode of deception if you won't admit to the specifics of it.

So CS, have you received that "good white person" certificate? Who's signed it? Where is it hanging in your internal landscape?

I had in fact read a lot of what you have written.

Again, check yourself, CS -- there is a lot of hypocrisy in where you're coming from.

I see it. You may be surrounding yourself with people who don't, or who do but don't call you out for various reasons. Nice work.

Because you are after all the self-identified "Changeseeker," one of the enlightened ones after all, a white woman seeking change because she claims that is what she is doing in words, who has this whole claimed history that can shield what she is actually doing in this world under the icon/avatar/blogwords

So what, we all have a long activist history and people who should have would have could have called us on XYZ but you know what, it doesn't always happen for various reasons and rigid claims are evidence of something you wwant to hide. I know it you know it stop pretending if you can (can you?)

So. Deception and defensiveness. I see it. The BS is so seriously strong in the energy of so many of your words, but ... I don't blog anymore, so ... keep yourself connected with the ones who will stroke you and not call out the deep bullshit in where you are coming from.

Keep up that deception, CS. Important part of that Changeseeker image. And for sure keep *defending yourself* against people like me -- because goddess knows it is better to have a nice rigid self-defense than open up to possible truths that might destroy that special identity you cling to.

You are after all the Changeseeker! That is a very important image to defend, is it not?

You know what, CS? Defensiveness like what you showed in your response speaks loud about where you're at. Your actions speak. and your use of words to defend yourself speaks loud too. Check yourself -- ruthless scrutiny -- if you dare to do it and if there is anything left in you that can do such a thing.

I bet you don't dare.

Prove me wrong, ok?