By Michael Lipkowitz, BETA at Mott Hall Bronx High School
Some of our students have asthma. Some of them don’t. Some of their parents have marital problems or have histories of abuse. Some of them don’t. Some of them get in fights at school; some of them have had their siblings arrested, some of them have been arrested themselves, and, well…some of them just haven’t experienced any of these things.
It’s interesting to see how teaching in a Title 1 school in the South Bronx both does and doesn’t live up to the expectations that movies gave me. Some professors advised me to teach in a private school, with a mostly white population. “It’ll be easier,” they said. “Those Bronx kids will tear you apart.” My parents said it would be more financially viable, and that I’d have greater job security. “It’s not safe,” one relative said. “I read a review on the Google. I went to New York in the 70s. I know what it’s like there. Trust me.” And movies: I’ve seen clips from all the cliché urban biopics. Try Blackboard Jungle, or Stand and Deliver, or Dangerous Minds, or Freedom Writers. (These “success” stories have been expertly debunked by Colleen Gillard and Gary Rubinstein, respectively.)
Where can we bridge the gap between fiction and reality? Why is it so gripping—I would almost say transfixing—to watch movies about privileged white people helping underprivileged racial minorities? Teju Cole, in speaking about “KONY 2012,” controversially coined a term he calls “the white savior industrial complex.” He uses this term to describe when white people expend “big emotions” in helping racial minorities so that they can “validate” their own economic privilege.
I can’t help but ask: does this apply to me?
I’m white, and Jewish. I grew up in an upper-middle class suburb outside of Chicago and went to an enormous school, one of the best in the state. I took 12 AP classes, saving up enough credit to take a year off of college, spend a year abroad, and save up money afterwards by taking on part-time jobs and internships instead of registering for classes. I am one of the lucky ones. I was born in the right place, went to the right schools, and in college, I made the right choices. The fact that I had choices to begin with was what set me up for success. So many students that we teach don’t feel like they have any.
In being accepted to Blue Engine, I couldn’t help but berate myself, believing I had fallen into Cole’s “white savior” dialectic. I’m just another wide-eyed kid from an elite private school thinking he can go into a Title 1 school—predominantly filled with racial minorities—and subsequently “save” them. What naivety, what presumption! These kids, I thought, are going to chew me up and spit me out.
Ironically, I was afraid of being judged by the color of my skin. I was afraid that I would be unable to relate to my students, unable to break the bubble of my privileged, suburban, mostly white upbringing. I won’t be able to reach out to them, I thought. These were my neuroses and mine alone.
A month later, I have found something I definitely didn’t expect. My school staff and my fellow BETAs come from a wide variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. But when we work, all the differences in our upbringing—who had privilege and who didn’t—don’t interfere with our ability to teach or relate to our students. In fact, each of us has something different—a skill, a character trait, a finesse—that helps us to connect with each kid differently. As a team, we are strengthened by our differences as much as our similarities. We become united in a common goal: we are all working to raise the stakes for these students and get them somewhere despite the odds. And they look up to each of us, because they know we all equally believe that, no matter where our great-grandparents came from.
Like them, I was a student, and not very long ago at that. When they complain about their upcoming essay next week, I tell them how in college I wrote 6-8 papers per quarter. When they stress about the 10 pages of reading per night, I tell them about how in high school I once read a book overnight to study for an exam the next day. Like I used to (and probably still do, more than I’d like to admit), they worry non-stop about what other people think of them. They write paragraphs at the beginning of each class about their phones and iPads and Jay-Z concerts and One Direction music videos. They discuss the clothes they bought over the weekend, the “high school parties” they went to, their skirmishes with the law, the fights with their parents, and the passing of their loved ones. Some of these things surprised me—I didn’t expect these kids to have iPhones, to be going shopping some weekends, to have the simple luxuries of life that I have (even on a BETA budget!). I didn’t expect their high school experience to, in many ways, seem so similar to mine.
Some of them, in lieu of homework, stay up long nights messaging with friends until 2 AM through texting or Facebook chat. I did that too, once—back then we used AOL Instant Messenger, but the idea was still the same, and the procrastination just as ever-so-sweet. Our skin colors might be different, our parents’ wallets might be different sizes, and there might be almost a decade between us. But, in some cases, we share the same gossip, the same social pressures, and similar academic experiences.
I do not feel I am trying to “save” these kids. But I am trying to help them. And for some of our students, I can help prepare them to be successful in college. It’s not about me, not about satisfying some “complex,” as Cole would suggest. I’m here to increase the chances that my students find the support that they need. Because in a school with large classes it can be easy for at-risk students to fall through the cracks.
I have already built some strong connections and I can see myself building even stronger ones as the year goes on. They ask about my years in college; they ask what I will be for Halloween; they ask if I will be around after school so that they can come by and say Hi. No, I don’t think I look like Harry Potter, I say. Yes, those are silly bands I’m wearing. And yes, I went to college.
Yes, college was amazing. Yes, it was hard. Yes, I had to study—and do my homework. Yes, yes, yes. And you should, too. You can, too. You can too, just like me. Even though we don’t look alike; even though we grew up in different places.
They are silent for a few still seconds. Possibly for the first time all class. But I know they’re listening.