How a Student Helped Me Face Myself Part 2

Posted by Brian Gibbs on November 21, 2014

Last week, we met Angel: a student struggling to remain in the shadows within an active classroom which had been together for over a year. Leaving Brian pondering how to bring him back into the class after a confrontation, Angel had stormed out of the classroom.

When Angel left, I let him go. I’d been treated worse. I needed time to think through why it happened and how I could reintegrate Angel back into class. If I gave chase he might retreat further. I was trying to think about how to build on his confrontation of me. It was, after all, the most passion and determination I’d seen out of him all semester. So, I taught on. Fifteen minutes later my classroom phone rang. It was our dean of students and he was laughing.

“Mr. Gibbs, do you have a student named….” I heard “Angel,” from the background. It was Angel’s voice. “Angel?”

“I do.”

“He tells me that he… what did you do?” (Again in the background.) “Told him f*** you. Twice.” “He told you f*** you, twice he says. What do you want me to do?”

“Can you tell him that he shouldn’t say f*** you to folks and then send him back?”

“Sure,” the dean says.

I hung up the phone and taught on. Ten minutes later, I heard the softest knock on the door. If I hadn’t been waiting for it I probably would have missed it. I opened the door and blocked it open with a chair. Our conversation went like this:

“Hi Angel, what’s up?”

“The dean…he says…I should apologize.”

“Ok” I say.

“Sorry,” he says in a bit of a shrill voice with his eyes down, scratching an imaginary dirt spot on the floor.

“Angel, what happened?”

“Well…” said Angel puffing himself up, “you don’t like me.”

“I don’t like you? What do you mean I don’t like you?”

“You don’t like me because I wear baggy pants and baggy shirts.”

I had to keep from breaking into a smile. “All your classmates are wearing baggy pants and shirts,” I said gesturing inside the classroom.

He took a deep breath, steeling himself for what he was about to say.

“You don’t like me because you’re white and I’m Mexican.”

“So…I’m racist,” I asked.

“Yes,” came the answer cleanly and smoothly, with no fear and with complete conviction.

It was a body blow but I took it. What was most important was that I didn’t immediately dismiss his idea. Neither did I react defensively or angrily. Instead I listened, possibly out of shock, but nevertheless I allowed Angel to speak.

Through his defiance he forced me to face myself. Some of what I saw I liked. But I also saw how he saw me. And was afraid that he might be right.

Truth be told, I had grown complacent. I was working hard. I had a strong pedagogy and a strong curriculum but I had assumed that students would move towards me rather than it being a mutual move towards one another. I maintained the role of adult.

For all my “do gooding” and attempts to flee the power structures embedded within me, his words forced me to be open to seeing through his eyes. He had clearly seen my white privilege.

With honesty I responded,

I might be Angel.

I’m white. I’m middle class. I’m male. I was raised always knowing there would be food on the table and the question wasn’t if I could go to college but where. I was raised in privilege and for all my justice orientations I might be racist.

I’ve worked hard not to be, to work in places where I could be of some use. But that isn’t really the question. The question is, can you live with my privilege? If I continue to grow, will you? If I work at making myself better, can you come back into this class, do your homework, come to class on time, participate, and not tell me or anyone else to f*** off?”

“Yes,” was the answer. Just as cleanly, just as smoothly and with no hesitation.

He strode back into the room, into his team and into the class. In the next day’s seminar he was like a man reborn. Engaged, dogged, and questioning everything. His team was so surprised that their looks of shock could not be hidden. One of my favorite classroom photos is one of him that day with his team awed all around him. Mostly surprised that he had a voice, that he knew how to use it, and that there was something inside.

In an excellent essay Herb Kohl calls this the “topsy turvies.” He argues that when we are in a disagreement with a lover or friend we work hard to see it from their point of view, to better understand their perspective to help us move toward common ground. For all of my pedagogical love for inquiry and discussion, Angel helped me realize that I had built in silences and constraints. I think I didn’t invite the unanswerable and truly difficult because it would have revealed too much of me. I would much rather have students see who I hoped to be as compared to who I was and am.

I was proud that I took his critique standing and hadn’t moved to silence him or attempt a lame, shallow and defensive explanation. As hard as it was for me to hear, I allowed for the possibility that he might be correct. I also realized that the importance of integrating him back into the room trumped any defense of my honor.

After his rocky start, Angel passed my class with a very low B. He managed to graduate high school and even college and is now, it still makes me smile to think of it, a junior high social studies teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He has served as department chair, “at risk student lead” and is pursuing a masters degree in education. He’s thinking principal might be his next move. We email from time to time and get together for coffee about once a year. Each time we do one of us tells the story of the day that Angel dropped the F bomb.


SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS: What questions help you reflect on who you are and how you are perceived?

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Topics: A View from the Classroom

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