I Looked the Part

I Looked the part.

Heavy hair that framed the sides of my face like spaniel ears, large dark eyes which by third grade would peer through blue-rimmed glasses, and a rather heavy gait since I wore orthopedic shoes. How could I not be a good student?

Recently I was struck by the qualities that promote studentdom, not only because school is starting, and I’m now a teacher, but also because two vivid instances of students who beat the odds have appeared before me, one immediate and one from my past.

First the distant one: When I was a college student at Goucher College outside Baltimore, Florence Howe was one of the few women professors, a rather discouraging fact, given that Goucher was then a women’s college. Not only was she female, but young and striking looking with a full head of dark hair marked in front by a white streak. Recently I’ve been reading her memoir, A Life in Motion, published by the Feminist Press which she founded.

Child of working-class New York Jews, FLorence Howe’s intelligence and scholarly application made itself known by high school, but her mother persistently denigrated or ignored her accomplishments. Her mother worked and when she came home, wanted to listen to radio programs, not help Florence do homework. Possibly her mother didn’t have the skills, after a certain point, to offer much help. Nor to conceive of college. Her father, who drove a cab, took a different attitude, praising and encouraging her, but he couldn’t provide much help either. It was her teachers at Hunter College High School, then at Hunter College itself (which was free) who led her in various directions that culminated in graduate school and her position at Goucher in the early 1960s. What her mother did say, however, was a kind of backhanded directive: Become a teacher so you’ll have your own money and your husband can’t make you grovel. This didn’t describe her own father’s behavior exactly, but fit the family’s poverty: her mother’s job helped put food on the table.

Now the modern instance: This is a young high-school English teacher in a Twin Cities suburban high school whom I know because she’s finishing her master’s degree in education, and I’m her advisor. Let’s call her Natalie. Natalie is African-American. Beginning in Chicago and concluding in the Twin Cities, Natalie’s elementary and high school education had three parts: kindergarten through third grade, fourth through seventh in Chicago, then eighth through graduation from high school in the Twin Cities.

As Natalie and I talk about her capstone paper’s focus–on the achievement gap between students of color and white students (which is very high in Minnesota)–I encourage her to tell her own story because it so clearly emphasizes two crucial elements in students’ success: a settled school history, i.e. staying in one school for as long as possible, and the importance of teachers and parents.

Natalie’s first four years of school in Chicago, her single mom moved the family from one neighborhood to another. Natalie’s schooling was disrupted by what we call today transience. It’s like uprooting a little plant and never letting it put down strong roots. That changed when her mother settled into an all-black neighborhood with a neighborhood school. As Natalie describes that school, I’m struck by several elements that contributed to help her take hold: all her teachers were black. They provided strong role models for African-American accomplishment, and they knew the culture and racial dimensions of their students’ lives. “Our teachers would call in our parents if we acted up,” says Natalie. “They ate with us in the lunchroom, stayed with us on the playground, saw us out the door. We walked to school with the same students through all our elementary grades because Chicago’s philosophy required elementary schools to serve surrounding neighborhoods. There was no busing.”

This seems crucial to both of us as we unpack what this meant for Natalie’s education. Stability, first of all. A constant strong guiding presence in and outside the classroom. Knowledge of students’ lives first hand–no student came from far away. Their home lives, their discipline, etc., all could be easily determined by the school. Finally a cohort of friends to accompany a kid throughout the day.

I’ve often wondered about the value of busing. Yes, it was put in place across the nation to combat segregation. Though Natalie’s school and neighborhood were essentially segregated, the quality of education was high. And the students were taught by people of their own race. Nor were they taken away from a familiar neighborhood every day to attend a school with kids far different from themselves. Undoubtedly in some schools busing has created greater opportunities for underserved students, but it’s no surprise to me that Saint Paul has decided against busing (for all students or only elementary?). Eliminating busing in Saint Paul is a money-saving measure, but it also gives kids a chance to know the world under their feet, all around them, at the slow pace of walking, taking it in, day after day. That kind of environmental consciousness–this is my world and this is myself in it–can help form a sense of self among others, distinct and united. I venture to say it’s the foundation for ethical thinking.

When Natalie’s mother brought her family to the Twin Cities hoping for a better life, they settled first in Minneapolis and Natalie began at a junior-senior high combo. When they moved the next year, and the next, and the next, from suburb to suburb, Natalie convinced her mother to let her take the city bus into the city and conclude high school where she had started it. “Teachers knew me; they guided and encouraged me,” Natalie says. “I did homework on the city bus. My mother trusted me. If I’d lived by the mandate that you go to the closest high school,I would have changed high schools three times.”

That kind of up-rooting is extremely damaging at any age, but especially when the focus should be on developing mental, social, and emotional capacity. No wonder transience is highly correlated with school failure. Transience is also correlated with low-income. As Natalie explains, “We always rented for a year at a time. If Mom wanted to find a better apartment or a better job, it wasn’t hard for us to pick up and move, but I insisted on staying at the same school.”

It’s no surprise to me that Natalie has become a high school English teacher, eager to teach the classics, but also, I say to myself, a highly important role model and guide to the students whose background mirrors her own. She was helped to make important choices for education. Those choices will be different from student to student. But there are certain constants–stability, continuity and teachers who can light the spark. I’m honing my sparks.

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