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A fight breaks out near the gym entrance at the large, suburban high school where I teach. I see members of the Step Team that I advise walking from that direction and my heart sinks. I send up a quiet prayer. Please, don’t let one of my kids be involved.
The upperclassmen on the team show somber expressions, but a few freshmen are excited by the incident. Many students have their phones out–chattering like hyenas–capturing the moment live.
As practice begins, I call the team together. I instruct the new and former members that the student involved in the fight would no longer dance with us. I am saddened to lose a male performer, but I am compelled to repeat the motto: “Step members do not fight.” One of the team captains supports my statement and informs the students that drama is not welcome. She tells them: “They already don’t like us.”
Many shake their heads affirmatively. No one disagrees. I bear witness, a pensive observer.
Driving home that comment repeats. I wonder who are they? Are they teachers? Are they the security guards? Are they administrators. Are they adults in general? Are they white people?
I know who us is in the statement–a motley crew of predominantly African-American females, a few Latina and a few white, with a sprinkling of boys who represent a minority amongst the minority group. This group loves to dance and performs to the joyous and loud applause of the student body who remains in school for the three annual pep rallies. Their high school is predominantly Caucasian, and the team gives the members a place of connection, community, and expression of culture. In a sea of other, the Step Team anchors these forty students. My role is the one of scheduler, counselor, and mentor. It is my second year advising. I am more secure in my place, but I continue to learn from their perspectives.
“They already don’t like us.” However truthful, the statement makes me sad. I have heard the comments from adults in the building: “They are loud.” “Those kids are difficult and dramatic.” “The student involved in the incident was one of yours.” “You have done such a great job with those kids.” “Can you please send me the attendance list for the late bus so that I can verify that those kids are actually with you?” These comments make me cringe because the translation is always the same. These well-meaning adults are informing me that those kids just don’t fit in our school.These well-meaning adults are informing me that those kids just don't fit in our school. Click To Tweet
But when they perform, everyone smiles. Those black kids are loud, dramatic and prone to violence. They need to be contained and controlled, but look at them dance!
I wonder if I am just a colonizing influence? Am I giving the students a safe place, or am I merely a tool in a rigged system? Those kids have my complete heart. My favorite part of my teaching day involves them. I am all in, but am I misguided? Am I like a Christian missionary embroiled in 19th-century imperialism? Could I be drawn like a caricature of liberal, white guilt?
I can also name many individuals with whom I teach who have never uttered words of alienation or discrimination. These teachers love all of our students. They eagerly chaperone the Black History Celebration and cover for me on Saturday morning practices that I cannot attend. I am confident that for every subtle yet racially engrained comment, many colleagues see these kids as beautiful, strong, and talented. I am sure that many of the Step Team members can name those teachers and staff members–we are the agents of change, the examples of justice in a disparate world.
So, I will continue to advise and mediate in the hopes of mitigating circumstances and precedent beyond my students’ control. And, I hope one day the students on the Step Team perceive all educators as benevolent.