Saturday, April 2, 2011

on race

My class and I have been delving deeper into the Civil Rights Movement throughout the past two weeks, and they are loving it. What a joy it has been to see them get excited about something and have so many questions. I am the only black teacher they have had, and the only black teacher at this school. Pretty much I am the only black person anywhere I go haha. But I don't mind. Honestly, this is not something that bothers me or eats me alive. 

With all of this discussion about race and color, we somehow got on quite an interesting tangent. One of my girls was asking how old my sister was, and when I said nineteen, they were all surprised and started talking about how old they thought I was going to be and how they thought I would look. This little tangent lasted for about twenty minutes, but it was time well "wasted." The kids all said that when they heard my name was "Jessica," they assumed I would have "blond hair and really white skin." One of my kids, who is from Colombia, said, (not so tactfully, but with a good deal of humor) "It had been a long time since I had seen a dark person, so when I walked in the room and saw you, I thought 'What's that?!?'" I just about died with laughter. Another girl said that she was with another friend (who had already met me in Sanford, FL when I was there for training) and was so confused when her friend tried to show me to her at church. She was looking for someone completely different! When the kids heard that I was young, they thought that I was like, nineteen years old. HA! 

I love that there are cultural boundaries to be broken down here. One of my friends and I were talking the other day and he was asking me all about my life back in the States and whether I had friends from different countries, etc. Here there is not much diversity. In the States there is a variety of colors, languages, dialects, cultures, ethnicity, and races. I love that. 

The truth is, I love my life here. It is fun being the odd one out sometimes because I can share about what life is like in the United States, but I also have so much to learn of this beautifully vast and culturally rich country. After being here for nearly eight months, there are still some things I miss about the States, and yet there are other things that I have come to know and love of this new place I call home. 

Last night, a bunch of friends and I met up at the Deportiva to go running/walking. There was some miscommunication, and one of my friends, Sergio arrived at 5:00 PM, when we were all planning on meeting at 6:30 (oops). Anyways, almost as soon as we arrived-- I'm talking like the minute I after I get out of the car-- this woman says to me "Sergio was looking for you!" And I just look at her and say, "Oooohhhh...thank you!?" 
I had never seen this woman in my life. I'm not kidding. I looked at my friends Alex and Jaci and said, "I've never met that woman. How did she know Sergio was searching for me?" And then I said, "You know what, I bet you that Sergio asked that woman if she had seen a black girl anywhere, and I bet you I'm the only black girl here at the Deportiva." To which we just died laughing. And what do you know, when Sergio finally came ambling up to us, he admitted that he had asked the lady if she had seen a black girl, and when the lady passed us and saw us together, he said "Thanks!" HA! And then, to make the situation even funnier, he says to me "Wait, what about the guy? Did the guy come talk to you?" To which I replied, "You asked a man, too?!" Oh, what a night. Sergio politely asked me if I was offended, which of course, I was not. 

Fast forward to Wednesday morning in history class. I take a look at my lesson plans that I am using from PBS, and I see that this morning, I am to conduct an experiment on segregation. I have always wanted to do this particular activity with my own classroom. I remember watching the documentary A Class Divided in my elementary psychology class in college and being so fascinated with the bravery of Jane Elliot. She conducted an activity in her class in which she divided the children based on whether they had brown eyes or blue eyes, and she favored one group in order to teach them what segregation felt like first-hand. 

So on Wednesday, after morning recess, I gave the kids each either a small yellow or red piece of construction paper to tape on their shirt. I told them that they could not talk to anyone who was a different color than them; they couldn't play with them at recess; they basically had to ignore them. Pretty quickly they all caught on that it was probably something for history, but I just told them that it was a new rule and that they had to follow it; if they broke it there would be a consequence and I would be talking to their parents. 

In my opinion, the activity was successful. The yellow kids were white, and the red kids were black. When it was time to watch a BrainPOP!, I called the yellow kids over to sit down and made the red kids stand up. After the video, we always take a quiz, and I called on the yellow ones and was nice and patient with them, but acted annoyed whenever a red child wanted to speak. I did not allow them to talk to their neighbor and told them (firmly) to be quiet. You could see within a matter of minutes how their dispositions changed. 

At lunch recess, I told my colleague Jeff that they were not allowed to play together outside so that he could monitor things. Two of the students slipped up and talked to one another and consequently had to stay inside and write 100 sentences that said "I will not talk to a red/yellow person." Jeff partnered with me outside by allowing the yellow kids to play on the court and making the red kids play on the other part of the playground, which is not nearly as popular and is not shaded. And when the kids lined up, the red kids had to go collect trash. The other kids laughed and kind of pointed fun at them, and they were pretty discouraged. I have to say that seeing them so sad and dejected was hard, even for me. They have never been exposed to the realities of segregation and racism and do not realize that sadly, it still exists today. 

In the afternoon, the kids go to English/Spanish class, and when they return, we have about forty minutes left of the day. I let them write down their homework and clean up, and then I finally confessed that I was doing a little experiment with them. They were so relieved when I told them that I was not going to talk to their parents and that this new rule would only last for that day. We discussed the ramifications of segregation and how it must have felt to truly be discriminated against in the 1950's and 1960's. The red kids said that they felt horrible and were just frustrated throughout the day, and the yellow kids said that it felt nice to be favored but that they also felt bad for their friends. 

This afternoon, we skyped my parents and talked with them about what it was like to live during that time. Because my parents were born in the mid-1950's, they did not experience a ton of discrimination as they would if they were older, but they certainly had stories to tell. What a blessing to hear them pass on their stories to my kids who were so hungry for knowledge and understanding. Since Wednesday, parents and other teachers have approached me with gratitude and talked about how good it was for the kids to go through the "simulation" and to gain a deeper understanding of that dark period in United States history. Look how far we have come now!

Psalm 139:13-16
You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body
      and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
  Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
      Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
  You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
      as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
  You saw me before I was born.
      Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
   Every moment was laid out
      before a single day had passed.

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