Regarding the rigmarole concerning the banning of “Ethnic Studies” in Arizona it seems that it’s pretty much “Chicano” in nature, accompanied by a disclaimer that the decree is not racist or anti-Latino or anything like that. Uh-huh, and it’s not hot at noon in Yuma in the summertime. Someday in a history class how many dates and lies will school children have to memorize concerning all this jive?
Oh, it’s such a shame to eliminate classes that tell history like it was and encourages students to use what they’ve learned to make changes for the better in the human condition.
To me it’s senseless because I wouldn’t know how to teach history or social studies without adding an ethnic twist, using my own ethnicity and life experiences to turn students on. I’ve been doing it since the first day I ever stood before a class I could call my own: close to 40 sixth graders who looked at me like a teacher was their favorite meal and they hadn’t eaten in three months.
I mean these kids were way more fidgety and unsettled than I had imagined they would be as I tossed and turned in bed on the Sunday night before school opened for the 62-63 school year. I stood before them all official teachery like, pointing to my name on the board next to my “Class Rules” which they took in with “Yeah, right” expressions on their faces, looking at all that mundanity as an RSVP to show off their skills at wise assery. I began thinking: “Maybe I should have stayed awake in that course on classroom control.”
There was a reason for what was happening, but that’s a story all to itself, a story of what school staffs sometimes do to a teacher who’s new to a school and doesn’t know who the school’s “live ones” are.
Feeling like ribs about to be tossed on the barbecue grill, I put the roll book down and the pencil down and the chalk and eraser down and sat down on the edge of my desk and simply started telling them a few things about myself: where I came from, Tucson; what it was like growing up there under the blazing sun; how I managed to make it for 24 years sparring with Jim Crow, sometimes up close and personal and sometimes on the run; and they stopped gazing at me with those “Do we want him cooked rare, medium or well done” looks and leaned forward and started listening in ways they didn’t seem capable of moments before. Voila: “ethnic studies” in the house!
In those moments I learned something that was never mentioned in any of the education courses I took on my way to a BS and an M.ED: kids are absolutely fascinated with the lives of adults, with true stories, with drama.
Oh, questions and comments gushed from them like water from fire hoses: “You could only swim in one pool? What would happen if you swam in the white pools?”
* “Was it fun throwing popcorn down on the white kids?” “They wouldn’t sell you a hamburger? What kind of business is that?” “No wonder you don’t like to skate if you can’t skate anytime you want to.”
That set the tone for the rest of the year, for the rest of my career. I found that anytime I could tie a lesson with something out of my life and, in turn, out of the lives of my students, it made our learning exciting and relevant to the real world; it gave us a connection to that world. It’s fun. The “ethnic” aspect was that everybody has an ethnicity, and we shared from where we stood in the world as human beings. They were privy to my perspectives on life as a black man and I was privy to how they felt in their multitudes of colors and creeds. I worked to help them learn how to read between the lines in our textbooks with questions like “So what is really meant when it’s said that Christopher Columbus discovered America considering that people were already here? Were they really savages? What is a savage? Based on who’s interpretation? What might it be like here in San Diego if we were still in Mexico?”
I recently met with a class of junior high Chavistas (Cesar Chavez Club members) to have a discussion with them regarding one of Cesar’s ten values: “Knowledge is Power.” I opened our time together with a poem expressing my feelings about Christina Taylor Green, who died at the hands of a deranged man, in a now infamously horrible scene, so that they could grasp the depth of how I was feeling on that day and so that they would know that they were free to speak from their hearts too. At some point we touched on the problems with ethnic studies in Arizona because that is why I was asked to hang out with them.
In the conversation an extremely bright girl, a real live modern day Chicana, mentioned that her mother had told her that Chicano Studies were the best courses she had ever taken, that she had learned about her culture for the first time, about what her people had contributed and come up against and overcome and how, in the course, they talked about how they could turn things around within the system that had excluded them. They discovered that there are always loving and caring people of goodwill of all colors and ethnicities around with whom they could create a better world. This girl’s mother still approaches the world in that spirit today and I sensed the same attitude in her. I left for home that afternoon feeling really hopeful about the world.
That’s ethnic studies in a nutshell. It’s all about love and unity. Rather than being prohibited it should be embraced. Within it there’s something for everybody.
* The answer was “Yes” but I explained that, in throwing popcorn down on children who were as innocent as I was, I then became part of the problem. That launched a deep conversation about problem solving. Simple isn’t it?