Betsy DeVos is less qualified for Secretary of Education than most of the students I’ve taught over the past eight years. I’ve worked in elementary schools, high schools and colleges, and I would take almost every single one of the young people I’ve met over DeVos. Here are some of the individuals I’m thinking of who I would prefer to see as the leader of the education industry in the United States, if only they had billions of dollars with which to bribe Republican politicians:
Ian P. Ian was serious when he told me he was going to kick my ass if I asked him to get on task one more time. A 6’2″ football player, he was seated uncomfortably in a Tetris shape of connected desks with four other students, all of whom were supposed to be reading an essay that I had chosen for the class because I thought it would help them become better readers. Turns out, the essay was boring, meaningless and offensive, because school was overrun by white hegemonic testing and domineering teachers who tried to convince their students they cared about them by calling them academically deficient. I was one of those teachers even though I was sure I wasn’t, and Ian P. was going to kick my ass.
Later, he apologized to me out in the hall. I apologized, too, and he accepted my apology because he knew that school was fucking him up. I was glad I chose to talk to him personally rather than reporting the incident to my administrator and getting Ian P. suspended the way I was supposed to. We shook hands and he went back to his science class.
Dennay J. Dennay was one of many individuals I met in an alternative educational setting well into adulthood, who hadn’t lasted in high school past the age of 14 or 15. After the state locked her up in a cell for a while, Dennay J. was back in her neighborhood trying to move on with her life. Like so many of her classmates, Dennay was interested first and foremost in getting a job and gaining some personal legitimacy in our racial society. She knew that New Yorkers with social capital saw her as a second-class citizen because of her skin color. She thought maybe she’d be a security guard or a phone salesperson after she passed her G.E.D. It didn’t matter that much to her, as long as she was able to pay rent.
I asked Dennay J. about college, about whether she wanted to launch into some real academic stuff while she was still at our program. She was interested but in a way I can only describe as avocational; she loved to be challenged intellectually but I could tell she didn’t really have the time or energy to devote herself to the critical consciousness curriculum. A lot of times she missed class because she was attending to family matters, or she was applying to or interviewing for jobs, or she was getting wrongfully accused and incarcerated again by racially profiling police, and having to deal with the resulting legal issues. School was all right, but it was kind of beside the point. Why sit in school when society wasn’t trying to offer her opportunities anyway? Why get a degree to prove she was capable to people who automatically assumed she wasn’t capable? Why stress over school when school didn’t really matter, race mattered, the amount of money you had mattered, the buildings the state cornered your family into mattered.
JP A. JP spent much of the school year researching the details of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s early 19th Century settler colonial adventure across the United States. He made a map of their route, read their journal entries and also some secondary texts glorifying the trip for young audiences. But as the year pressed on I saw that JP A.’s work was undergoing a change in perspective. The simple line map of the explorers’ route had morphed into a massive visual cataloguing of indigenous people’s histories. JP’s personal journal entries became discussions of the lives of the Mandan, the Sioux, the Cheyenne–and groups like the Comanche, the Natchez and the Seminole, whom the famous explorers might not have even encountered. Sometimes his writing fictionalized the voices of notable indigenous persons — JP was trying to imagine what it was like to be living by the Missouri River for your whole life and then suddenly meeting some swashbuckling “Americans” who claimed to “own” the land. JP A. and I both lamented how there were no books in our classroom library that depicted Indian life apart from the classic picture books that stereotyped and superficially essentialized these people. He ended up going online to academic sites to find the rest of his material.
By the spring of that year he was burnt out on Lewis & Clark and began to research all the different types of cheeses across the world. “Why do you want to do cheese for your next unit?” I asked him. “I just love cheese,” JP A. said.
Antwan E. Antwan was going to community college while he volunteered as an organizer at a CBO in Brownsville, Brooklyn. One week we talked about the 1954 Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court case, and Antwan E. and his classmates told me in an uproar that just because school segregation was illegal now didn’t mean anything had changed. Brown versus the Board hadn’t done shit. I asked them if they thought the solution to inequality was to close some “bad schools” and build new “good” ones funded by rich white philanthropists that took kids on a lottery system, or if, instead, it was to ramp up equitable public funding for the “bad” school system, while also strengthening standards and teacher accountability to make kids learn “better.” Antwan E. thought this was a silly debate; he thought we had been talking about how to beat racial segregation and white fear, not about how best to colonize certain children while expanding opportunity for some other children.
Ramona N. I taught a class of preservice teachers recently in which we took a good look at social inequality and talked about what teachers’ roles should be in making change. A few of the students liked to talk about how the low performing students across the country weren’t to blame for their failure because they came from bad environments, they had bad role models, their parents didn’t have time to support them, they weren’t motivated to learn, and so on. They just needed stronger school programs and better teachers who could lift them up when their circumstances seemed to preclude it. Ramona N. was one of the students who would point out the deep, implicit racism and classism in these assumptions. Most of the class agreed with Ramona N. but they still struggled to figure out what teachers were supposed to do, then, if they wanted to help these low achieving kids succeed.
What were policymakers supposed to do if the whole idea of “achievement” was biased and destructive? That was when a lot of my students had an “Oh shit” moment. Ramona N. was one of them. Toward the end of the semester she told me she had rethought her whole plan. Rather than help struggling kids in low-income neighborhoods do better, she was going to work in an affluent white school where she could help struggling kids learn about power and privilege. She wanted to help them figure out who they really were, and then maybe some of them whose “heart[s] bleed” would grow up to invest the billions of dollars they inherited into better things than an elaborate, privatized system of stratified white saviorism. Damn, I thought. Maybe you should be the Secretary of Education.