This piece originally appeared in EdWeek.
This month, I’ll be featuring the voices of female educators in honor of Women’s History Month. More written about this is here.
Guest post by Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Ms. Aryee-Price, you’re not going to believe this. I’m writing an essay that was assigned to the 8th graders!”
You see, that’s Aida. A seventh grade, Afro-Latina student of Dominican descent whose thirst for knowledge reminds me of myself at her age. She gives me life within an oppressive system I find myself having to navigate and negotiate every day.
As a Black woman teacher who is also a numerical minority in my district, I often feel like a sea otter in a bed of sharks that are waiting to attack and devour me at any given moment. Making the wrong move, uttering the wrong sounds will cost me my life. That’s real. My Blackness and womanness intersect in ways that I cannot escape, so survival becomes the ultimate goal. My students are my survival.
I grinned; her enthusiasm for school gives me a unique kind of energy that keeps me coming each day.
In a classroom discussion about The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton and the protagonist, Ponyboy’s obsession with Gone with the Wind, I encouraged students to critique this problematic story of the Old South. Aida’s constant questioning and wondering led us into a brief exchange.
“Next year,” I shared, “you all will read To Kill a Mockingbird, a text that explicitly tackles racism, power, privilege, and what justice looks like for some…” She was intrigued.
I could see the wheels spinning in Aida’s head. In the only way that she could express, she blurted out, “I’m going to read that book.” And she did.
My hope is in the children I teach each day. Our language arts classroom discussions center their lives, their stories, and the experiences of people who look like them. It is important they get to see themselves represented in the classroom. It is important they get to see humanity in its fullest form and what happens when an oppressive system attempts to dampen their hopes and desires. And it is equally as important for them to see when people like them fight this oppressive system: win, lose, or draw.
So when Aida told me that she did not pass language arts class last year, I questioned how that could happen. What went wrong? Did our system fail this child? How can a system that is not intentional about educating students of color, predominantly Black and Latino, succeed? Having a colorblind approach to teaching our students not only invalidates their lives but discourages them from seeing the divine and magic within themselves. As a Black woman who teaches mostly Black and Brown students, and as one who approaches the classroom from an anti-racist and social justice lens, it is imperative that my students see the divine in themselves. That’s their survival.
Unfortunately for many of us, we are born into this white heteropatriarchal society. It’s an oppressive society that we have all inherited, so anything counter to that reality runs the risk of being silenced, isolated, and defeated.
And because we were all born into this unjust system, we cannot escape it’s oppressive ways unless we actively and collectively work to disrupt it. As women, we internalize this oppression, and see it manifested and perpetuated in various forms between our daily interactions with each other. But as a Black woman in this system, I need to go into work fully armored.
So yes, I will be punished more harshly than my white male counterparts, and even more severely than my white female counterparts. No “bad days” because that courtesy is rarely, if ever, extended to me. There is no room for me to mess up. No do-overs, even though others may be allowed that courtesy.
Therefore, I stride into my classroom knowing that the world is going to be unforgiving to my students. So I forgive them endlessly. Yup, seventy times seven, I forgive each of them. I walk into my classroom knowing that the world has very little love for them. I shower them with love. I strut into that classroom knowing compassion sees them not. So compassion and empathy are the center of the approach I take with them.
I remember the very first comment Aida made to me when she introduced herself, “Language Arts is my worst class, Miss. And I don’t know how to write well. I just want to let you know that.” I smiled because I saw something much more brilliant in her than she thought I did.
Now, Aida has not only proven her ability to write well, but one of the other eighth grade teachers has collaborated with me by allowing Aida to sit in on her class discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird and to complete the work assigned to the eighth graders. If only you could see the pride on her face.
We sat over lunch last week to discuss the book. I remember sitting there, deep in conversation and seeing the determination in a child who needed to see herself represented in her classes. She needed others to see and know her brilliance. Aida knew it; the rest of us were slow to the party.
I am consciously aware that my Black womanness informs my teaching and my approach to engaging the learners in my classroom. My Black womanness is acutely conscious of the ways in which oppression intersects in my daily life, in and out of work, and the lives of my students. And that knowledge and awareness cannot be duplicated or experienced by those who do not share in this.
It is because of my experience as a Black woman that I commit to justice within and outside the walls of my classroom. This is not to say that white teachers cannot do this work; they must. There just needs to be more intentionality when approaching the classroom. It must be free of paternalism, and full of self reflection, equity-driven, justice-driven anti-racism education.
I spent most of my years in public schools in the United States without having one Black teacher until my senior year of high school. I was desperate to see someone who had a similar experience as a Black woman, so I took accounting, a subject I hated, only because I wanted to experience having Ms. Holloway.
I envied the students who had Ms. Mack as a teacher, or Ms. Bolden as a guidance counselor. Those students appeared to be seen, heard, encouraged and loved so much more. I longed for that in school. As a teenager, I immediately recognized their value and power and wanted to be that for my students. Hence, it should come as no surprise to me that my students understand the value I hold for them, even if others pretend they do not know. But in the words of Fabulous, we’re “often imitated, but never duplicated.
Image via Flickr.
Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price is a grade 7 Language Arts teacher, a part-time Organizational Development Consultant with the NJEA, and a member of EduColor. As a partner and mom of two, Okaikor still finds time to do the work she truly loves: community and teacher organizing that centers anti-racist principles and social justice.