Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Never Give Up (For Grandpa)

So many times in my career, both as a teacher and a student, I have seen teachers give up on students.  Often they will judge students before they walk through the door.  My younger brother is a perfect example.  I always excelled academically, but it did not come as easily for him.  He struggled with ADHD as a child which caused him to act out in class.  As you educated readers already know, ADHD can be accompanied with severe depression.  While I am not defending my brother for behaving badly in class, I am even more appalled by how many of teachers just gave up on him.  Most of them judged him before they even walked in the door.

This kind of teacher behavior makes my blood boil.  And I know some of you have been there.  "Oh, you're Jackie Sutton's brother?"  His teachers would say? And then they would be surprised that he was not instantaneously an all-star student.  And so many of them would just....give up.  Instead of trying to work with him, they would just throw their hands up in the air.  Nothing changed when my parents put us in separate schools.  Teachers still just judged him.  Oh, that one.  He's a loser.  He'll never amount to anything.

Well, I am happy to tell you all that my brother is far from a loser.  He has grown up to be one of the most amazing men I have ever known.  He is an extremely hard worker. But unfortunately, many of his teachers didn't see that.  And because of what the teachers said, it also took my brother a long time to realize that they were wrong.

I had one of the most difficult classes of my life today.   Because a student called me racist.  He also exploded in my face, and humiliated me in front of the class.  I left the room in tears (which I have never done before), and I had a colleague excuse the class for the day.

Yes, I am white, I know.  I can't change the color of my skin.  But when you have color in your own family tree, you know a thing or two about racial relations.  You get the confused looks when you introduce your Jamaican-Chinese-Scottish-Irish-English BLOOD cousin to someone and they scan you both trying to figure it out.  You are cousins?!  How does that work?  Well, my aunt and uncle had a baby, that's how.

Those of you that know me know that I have spent my entire academic career studying the sources of injustice and inequality.  For better or for worse, I am particularly interested in racial inequality.  This is my chosen field of study, but yet I am white and I was born into a privileged family.  I went to an Ivy League School and have taught at only private schools. Tough life right?  WRONG.

Since I teach history, and there are many examples of racial inequality injustice from the past, this is a common discussion point in my classes.  I have taught many students of color, many of whom who were awarded prestigious scholarships and grants to pay their tuition.  I know how difficult it is to talk about race in a history class.  I know that students and adults alike are uncomfortable talking about it.  However, it is my fundamental belief that the only way we can overcome this kind of injustice is to talk about it.  Calmly and rationally figure it out.

Anyway, I am ranting.  This student doesn't really think I am racist.  We will calm down and sort out our differences.  The problem was, the student who yelled at me was one that I have taught for a few years.  This is a student that I have worked with for hours cramming for the AP exam, going over his essays, helping him improve his handwriting, and the like.  Sure, he and I have different backgrounds, but in some ways, I think of him like my little brother.  Many of his teachers have given up on him.  But I just can't.  Call me crazy, but HOW DARE YOU CALL YOURSELF A TEACHER IF YOU GIVE UP ON CHILDREN?  Would you kick your own child out of your house?

I don't have kids.  These are my kids.  I refuse to give up.

It looks like a snow day for us tomorrow, so at least I get a day to screw my head back on properly.  But then Thursday I am going to get my ass out of bed and sort this out.

Grandpa Sutton (I miss you) -- you never gave up on any of your kids.  And I won't either.  Because I know you are watching me.  I have your framed photo in my classroom, so you watch over me every day.  And I will never give up, Grandpa.  I promise.